The new school year has started. First day photos have been taken, schoolbags have grown heavy with new books, and the reality of homework and early morning alarm clocks is beginning to set in. The evenings are shortening and the papers are speculating about the chances of an Indian Summer. It's September again...
Even people who have nothing to do with school life any more have that 'back to school' feeling: as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it in The Great Gatsby, 'Things start all over when it gets crisp in the Fall.' Fashion magazines are full of new shoes, new bags: burnished brogues and shiny leather satchels. There are pleated skirts and smart, fitted blazers; neat suits and stripy ties. There's a hint of Autumn in the air and a strong feeling of new starts.
But what of the tribes of school? What of all those people you meet - who befriend you, instruct you, terrify you? It's simple. Just look on the screens of social media and you'll find them all there waiting, just like in the locker rooms and corridors of your half-forgotten school days.
No, honestly. It's not just a convenient, cheesy metaphor (edam, it's gouda!) - it's true. The earnest, conscientious students with the family photos of their perfect children, their carefully edited and filtered landscapes, and the cutest pets you've ever seen. They juggle all of these things with apparent ease, though the swan analogy of floating on the surface while paddling like hell underneath probably applies. The religious testimonials of the Scripture Union meeting are there too, with those memorable and inspiring quotations and memes which sometimes inspire, sometimes comfort, sometimes alienate. The sporting elite, all photos of effortless fitness at the twice-weekly Park Run, the selfie with the victorious team or the sparkling new tennis kit as they get ready for a few sets under floodlights. They all intimidated me at school. They all make me feel uncomfortably inadequate now too, even as I'm clicking 'like' on photos of their artfully edited lives.
And there's the flirts. The girls who gather round the Twitter alpha males, twittering and liking and retweeting and doing everything to gain attention and approval, desperate for a like or a 'DM'. Who knows what secret messaging goes on: I know of couples who have met through tweets and private messages, getting together at 'Tweet ups' as the popular kids gather their own coteries of admirers. All kinds of intrigues and affairs are possible. Just like when I was at school, I simply wouldn't know. I don't fit into the cliques any better now than I did then; I'm certain that I never will.
And just like at school, the bullies are on social media too. There are the people who try to spam you with suggestive images when they like one of your tweets - a subtly different account name every day for the full two months of your annual holiday - just like the people who quietly drew slightly obscene graffiti on your book or the instruction manual inside your calculator cover when you were too busy trying to figure out the sums to notice their pencilled intrusion. The people who patronise and subtly undermine. The people who keep score - not wishing you happy birthday because you forgot theirs. The ones who reproach you that they know you're online because you just posted a photo, so why haven't you replied to the direct message that you hadn't noticed, hadn't had time to answer or wanted to think about. The possibilities for manipulation multiply.
Just last weekend, I noticed postings from a popular café in Dublin. Clearly outraged by a difficult customer, the owner had posted that from now on, only coeliac patients accredited with and presenting a doctor's note would be permitted to order gluten free food in his establishment. When people protested, he told them to get lost, go elsewhere, get a certificate or- in a few cases- learn how to spell coeliac. As a non-certified but definite gluten/wheat intolerant, I made a mental note never to visit, with two words going through my mind: service industry. Nevertheless, the café's Facebook page has gathered near cult status, with people subserviently praising the café owner for his sarcastic and hilarious sense of humour. It's just like in the playground, where the bully attracts friends and followers who feel they're safe keeping on side through obsequious praise, and less likely to be the target of his next attack. His latest posting advertises 'plasters for everyone who had their feelings hurt' and suggests that those hurt or offended simply couldn't take a joke, using the victims' apparent humour intolerance to defend his own bullying tactics. It was ever thus... sticks and stones and all that stuff, though the hurt of words (virtual or in the playground) can echo through a lifetime.
I have a plaque at home which bears the quotation attributed to Michelangelo: 'I am still learning'. I hope that I'll still be learning when I'm very old indeed; perhaps that means that I'll still be at school even when I've retired from being a teacher. Whether feeling I'm though I'm still in the playground is just so positive, I'm not quite so sure. The subtle, inventive bullies of twenty-first century social media would probably tell me I just need to get a sense of humour. I'm wondering, though, if I need to spend even less time online and, instead of working on my sense of humour, focus on just living my life.
Maybe we're all always learning - but is there really any escape from the bullies who loom in the shadows and threaten the lives and well-being we learn to live?