It's one of those things that gets annoying, when you're a teacher: when the Back To School posters appear in the shops before the Summer Term has even finished. It feels like a hint at one of those government initiatives to shorten the school holidays. Perhaps like the campaigns to keep Christmas in December, Back To School posters should be kept for August. But this weekend, the phrase was something completely different. This weekend, I went back to school again, for the first time in longer than I'm admitting to in public. And so did fifty-something of the people I knew back then.
I dreaded it. Let's be honest: up until Saturday morning, I pretty much wasn't going to go at all. It felt like one of those ordeals that looms on the horizon... a job interview, or a dental check-up. But somehow, though I was telling myself I wasn't going to go, I was getting things in order so I could. And somehow, early on Saturday morning, I had found a respectable-looking outfit in the wardrobe - not too tragic, not too 'middle youth' - and seemed to be driving south to Holywood... and, hours later, was saying aloud as though my subconscious was on Bluetooth, 'this is surreal... this is so surreal,' as I drove up the school drive and parked where the teachers used to park, all those many years ago.
And it wasn't all that scary after all. Not in the end. Back To School - after seeing no-one among my classmates in the intervening time, or more or less - was like a new term of lessons whose learning intentions were clear. Some people were recognisable at a glance - just more sophisticated versions of their younger selves. Others... there's a few I still haven't worked out, but there were many whom I couldn't place on a first or second look, but whose features rearranged themselves to spark a memory on further observation. I'm not sure whether I was recognisable or not. Some people seemed to know who I was right away; others, when I introduced myself, looked shocked. The photos from the old days made ice run through my veins, yet made me laugh: it all felt so long ago that it seemed like someone else's life, not just a lifetime ago...
Teachers nowadays - at least, I'm not very good at this, but I try - are meant to outline a lesson's purpose as it starts, and recap it at the end. And I learned lots of things last night. I learned that I'm still the peripheral observer that I was at school, and maybe that's all right. That I'm still fascinated to watch and listen and absorb what people do and say... like whatever the opposite of an omniscient narrator is, making rapid margin notes on a page that's slowly being written. That the people who aren't like me at all fascinate me most, so much so that when I'm listening to their words, I'll go so quiet that people might think I've drifted off. But that when the people appear with whom I have common ground, it's suddenly as if travelling up that long drive brought me home again. Then I'll start talking too much and far too fast, as if the hour that's left before the evening ends could never be enough to fill in all those years... because when we walk away, we'll all turn back into ageing middle-youths again, just like the characters we all remember watching in Bagpuss, way back then, used to fade from coloured animation back to black and white stillness at the end of every episode.
I learned last night that I am still the person who is better at putting on an act of confidence than feeling socially at ease. I learned that maybe everybody feels the same. I learned that maybe adults are just teenagers with mortgages and car repayment plans... the day after, it seems, we're all just like teenagers still, uploading photos and messages on Facebook, excited about renewing friendships and - maybe it's just me - worrying a bit about how we came across, or whether the promises to keep in touch, the hugs, the smiles, were really just illusions of the night. I'm half-laughing, half-scared, but wholly glad I went. Way back then, I wasn't cool. I wasn't popular. I wasn't asked to what we didn't call our 'prom'. Years on, wandering through half-darkened corridors and talking too much, I heard the eerie creaking of a door, as I shivered a bit in the icy spring gale, and knew nothing had changed... yet at that moment, knew that that was fine.
Maybe being a proper grown-up means you can travel up a winding drive and look at your distant past until it rearranges itself into something which can feel like home.