In fact, it was one hell of an experience – but not for the reasons you’d think.
In 1982, Ardingly took in nine girls in the ‘Shell’ year (we were 13). Unable to board, we were firmly ensconced under the Headmaster’s House, in a study of our own where James and Mary Flecker, the Headmaster and his wife, could keep a bead on us. Mary was protector and defender; Mum and Aunt and big sister. We were going to get into trouble (it was inevitable) but she was there to deal with it.
In retrospect, it was a fucking crazy thing to do – as an adult, the boldness and sheer bloody dangerousness of the manoeuvre awes me. We were what?? There were those among the staff, public school tutors of long-standing tradition, who were opposed to our presence – GIRLS??!! – we were invading their territory, stalwart British standards were about to come tumbling down…
They cut us no quarter – but they were never unfair. We were expected to work and train and sport just as sodding hard as the boys did. And that was normal to us; it made us. I wonder how such treatment would be received in modern schooling?
The point to all this reminiscence and waffle?
Last Thursday, we had a school reunion – at the House of Commons, no less. It’s an astonishing building – exquisite, with a heavyweight of impeccably polite security more familiar to an episode of ‘Spooks’ – but it has a chill feel, an emptiness, that’s palpable. In spite of breathless beauty, paintings, plaques in the floor and vaults in the ceiling, it feels hollow.
Instead, we found ourselves at the very back of the building, right by the River… and twenty-three years in the past.
Coming full-circle, it was system-shock to see so many familiar faces that had changed so little. Badge peering was prevalent, wine was free-flowing and sneaking out for an illicit smoke brought back many memories (though the scenery was better). It was uncanny, too, that the old social groups drifted back together. Teenage tensions may have passed, the scenery may be spectacular… but friendship and character in many ways remain unchanged.
The thing that had changed the most was the generation gap – or the lack of one. When we were teens, James and Mary, Lady Whitmore, many others, were our teachers and caregivers, far more so at a public school than teachers at the modern comprehensive. At forty-plus, standing in the Houses of Parliament themselves, these shapers of our lives are no longer ‘masters’, they’re just people. In many ways, they’re equally unchanged (though the urge to call James ‘Sir’ is almost too deeply programmed to shift); they may be shocked by our age and treating us with choice anecdotes of our teenage years – but their affection remains. It’s enormous, and very moving.
We wouldn’t be who were are without these people, and the way they have touched our lives.
As the evening ended, we wound our way into the cold London night promising we would stay in touch, and come back next year.
I hope we will – and I hope the reunion continues to expand, bringing in more years and more OAs. In this world of FaceBook, you forget how catching up with people’s faces is so important.
Thanks to Jen for the inspiration, and Jane for making it all happen.