School's Out


It's been over 30 years since the last time I sang my school hymn, at my last assembly before leaving forever.

Today it was my youngest daughter's turn to leave school behind; and just to pile on the emotion, it was her father, in his role as Head of the 6th form, who was speaking at her last assembly. It seems about five minutes since I comforted her in the playground as she sobbed at her primary school leavers' day, tying ribbons onto fences and writing her name on friends' shirts. Today I left her to her goodbyes and rituals: time for mothers to take a back seat. Come September she'll be gone, and our lives will all shift a little, perhaps uncomfortably at the start. Between now and then there's exams, holidays, results and getting ready. The deep breath before the plunge - for all of us.

I haven't kept in touch with my school friends, nor even my home town. Until recently I had no contact with anyone; but social media has a way of connecting eventually, and so I find myself making plans to attend a school reunion in September - as we begin the academic year that we all turn fifty. I am mentally scratching my head to remember names, faces, and which exams I took. I don't recall school as a particularly wonderful experience - my children seem to have had a happier time of it; but I am surprised to find the bittersweet pleasure of nostalgia seeping over me as I recall the details of school life. And at the same time I am relieved never to have to revisit some of the everyday horrors of the education system and just being a teenager.

The relationships between girls can be toxic, and I was at an all-girls school. I will never miss the fear of turning up in the wrong style of clothes on non-uniform day; or the knowledge that I would never be as thin, as beautiful, or as talented as those girls at the top of the pecking order.

I profoundly regret that bubble perm.

I wish I remembered useful stuff. Instead I am left with the ability to parrot the duties of a Roman Consul (but only if set to Purcell's trumpet voluntary - thereby revising two subjects at once); and the vague notion that the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream were 'sensual', but I can't remember why.

I wish I'd never taken physics.

I miss the doughnuts at breaktime; the collection of empty ink cartridges at the bottom of my bag, each with their own plastic ballbearing; the smell of an opened desk; the satisfaction of getting an 'A'.

I wish I hadn't cared about looking red, getting sweaty, and hitting the ball in the wrong direction on the hockey field. And I wish I'd discovered the secret of making your green socks stay up.

I spent far too much time worrying about the width of my thighs, the height of my hair, and my inability to get anything above a C for geography. Oh, and boys. There was a lot of worrying about them.

I don't regret spending every General Studies lesson passing notes and making jokes; it was the first time I felt a true sense of belonging to a pack, which was far more useful to life and well-being than the various talks on Debussy, Paraguay, and the inner workings of the fridge.

I miss the hysteria that could be provoked by one teacher's mildly amusing turn of phrase: we dined out on 'imagine a world without poly-vinyl chloride' for a year. See, I remembered that one.

Most of all I think I miss the sense of possibilities. Even whilst we felt trapped in the school bubble, where each had their allotted place in the hierarchy and the hours were measured and prescribed, there was a sense of choices to be made that were ours to own; that would eventually lead us to where we wanted to be. Admittedly we didn't really know where that was yet, at least for most of us; but they would be our choices, our path to our future. As life goes on we live with the consequences of those options, but there are fewer opportunities for genuinely free choices.

Unless I go and have a bubble perm again.


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