We'll Meet Again – Or Will We?

17th June 2016

As the current school year comes to end Heather Harris is thinking up all the excuses she can to avoid a reunion with former classmates...

“Imagine if they’re all weirdos… or what if they kidnap you?”

This was my teenage son’s response on hearing that his godmother, Jane, was heading off to meet school friends whom she hadn’t set eyes on for nearly 40 years. Clearly he has been watching far too many Scandinavian thrillers, but part of me could see his point. Worryingly, so could she, as she paced around our kitchen questioning why she had ever agreed to go.

As usual, it’s all Facebook’s fault.

That Mark Zuckerberg has a lot to answer for – not only has he convinced an entire generation that it is socially acceptable to take pictures of their lunch and share it with the indifferent masses – but he has also made us all far too aware of what each other is doing.

And we all know what curiosity did to the cat…

As Jane explained, after changing her outfit for the seventh time, “When I accidently saw that my three best friends from school are friends with each other but not me on Facebook, I was intrigued. Why had they stayed in touch? Do they all live near each other and not me? Have they married triplets or did they in fact never like me?”

And, in the click of a keyboard, she was about to find out the answer – she got in touch and agreed to this 37-year reunion.

Roll on a few hours after our ‘imagine if they’re weirdos’ conversation, and as a ransom note had failed to appear I went off to bed, safe in the knowledge that the worst thing that had happened was that they had all looked younger than she did.

“The really glamorous one with the most successful job didn’t turn up, and the rest of us just seemed to carry on where we had left off when we said goodbye on the last day of our Irish secondary school,” Jane told me the following day. “I discovered they all went to England at 18, whereas I stayed in Ireland and simply lost touch – but what made us such close friends all those years ago was still there. We may have changed in looks but our personalities were the same!”

Jane also reported that they had all agreed to try and widen the next reunion to a few more of their close school friends, although not do a mass event. “After all,” she argued, “why would you want to meet up with people you never go on with in the first place.”

That sentiment is shared by a colleague, Nicola, who had recently been to an event organised by her primary school to mark an entire year celebrating their thirtieth birthdays.

“I only went because a friend persuaded me,” she said. “I would never have gone on my own because, although I loved school, there were still those people I have happily lost touch with!”

And in this case her worse fears were confirmed. “There were very few revelations. The bossy girl was still the one moaning about the table plan, the naughty one came in the wrong dress code and the over-competitive one wore his Chief Executive name badge!”

She also found that there was a large male/female divide. “Most of us girls had settled down and started having children so we automatically had something in common, but the 30-year-old men were all still playing the field and seemed so much more immature!”

Nicola has kept in touch with a few of the girls, but would be reluctant to go to another reunion. She echoes Jane: “You realise that life is too short to spend time with people you never liked in the first place!”

Ironically, school reunions in the UK are more popular than ever. Primarily because of the ease of organisation compared to BSM – Before Social Media.

Now there really is nowhere to hide. Even if you are one of the tiny percentage of the population without a computer, School Reunions UK is a specialist company set up with the sole purpose of finding that spotty boy from Class 5B and forcing him to share canapés in a draughty school hall with the rest of his fresh-faced ex-classmates.

I can see the initial appeal. Witnessing my own 18-year-olds clinging to their friends at the end of their final school term and swearing allegiance for life, it is easy to see how the prospect of ‘all meeting up for a drink sometime before too long’ is attractive.

But I am also realistic enough to know that inevitably it could degenerate into disappointment. It is, of course, impossible to recreate the past and the danger of trying to do so is that wonderful shared memories can be shattered in the process.

Take the reunion that took place at Orwell High School, Felixstowe, Suffolk, in spring 2014, which hit the headlines as a party of former pupils came back and behaved far worse than teenagers. Not only were many of the returning adults drunk, but they drew graffiti on walls, set off fire alarms and smoked in the loos (no change there, then!).

As The Daily Telegraph reported, “Whether one’s fifteen or fifty – like some of the Orwell revellers – alcohol, excitement and schools don’t always mix. It explains why some schools have a strict cooling off period before Old Boys and Girls are welcomed back – usually several years!”

For Deborah, it was five years since she had last entered South Hampstead High School when the invitation to a Class of 2009 Reunion fell onto her mat, but it wasn’t the excitement it might have been. “There was just one problem,” she said, “and it wasn’t the spring rolls. There was a sincere lack of gossip. Facebook ruined it.”

All the well-earned degrees, the years spent studying abroad – none of it was a surprise. “Different hair colours, extravagant tattoos, job offers, new sexual orientations, engagements, eating disorders, smoking and drinking habits – all of this was information I’d previously discovered. After all, every time my Facebook news feed is refreshed I attend a virtual school reunion!”

Interestingly, it is the older generation who seem to benefit most from catching up: Lis is a perfect example. She recently hosted a reunion of the men and women with whom she trained as a physiotherapist 40 years ago.

“In those days, with no emails – let alone Facebook – it was easy to lose touch, even though we were a tight knit group of 20 at the West Middlesex Hospital.”

The Registered List of Physiotherapists was used to track everyone down – many of the group were still practising – and 20 people agreed to turn up.

“From 1pm until 8pm people arrived at my house in Chorleywood from all over the world – even Canada – and only one had changed drastically,” Lis tells me. The day succeeded, she feels, because they had their work in common, giving them a ready-made subject to chat about, and because they were older, with more years to catch up on.

My own mother still meets annually with ten men and women she worked with at Lewis’s department store between 1958 and 1964. “And when two of them died we met up with some more old faces at their funerals who have now joined our group.” Over the last fifty years they have had their arguments, she admits, but the shared history keeps their reunions going.

Personally, I prefer looking forward rather than back. Memories are great because they are selective. The human brain has a wonderful rose- tinted ability to filter out – and record – only the best bits.

I remember my schooldays for the apple crumble, the end of term parties, the wins on the hockey pitch and my devastatingly handsome and hilarious English teacher, whom I loved almost as much as I adored the frontman from the Bay City Rollers.

I bumped into him in the supermarket last week (my teacher, not the man in tartan) – and he was now podgy, grey and wearing a shiny tracksuit. His witty line in repartee had stayed where he and I should have remained – a distant memory.

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