Nostalgia - Is It Really What It Used to Be?

Nostalgia - Is It Really What It Used to Be?

'What a good place to be / Don't believe it / 'cause they speak a different language /And it's never really happened to me...'

Later in the week, if my nerve doesn't fail, I should be attending one of those events you don't believe you'll ever be old enough for. A 'landmark' school reunion. I'm not going to say how many years, but it's long enough to be unsettling. I really don't quite know what to expect, having moved away from my hometown as soon as I finished school, and never really returned except to visit.

'No I don't know where I'm going / But I sure know where I've been...'

The teenagers I teach, long enough after my own school days that they simply believe me when I tell them I was at school with William Shakespeare, sometimes (to try to get me off track in a lesson) ask me what I was like when I was young. I tell them I was the quietly sarcastic cynic who read everything I could find, and hung out in the Music rooms; that I wore a lot of black when I wasn't in school uniform, and that I loved a good debate. Though they smile with indulgent recognition, I feel as though I'm cheating a bit - as though somehow the awkward mixture of angst and argument I'm trying to recall has got mixed up with characters from the high school movies of the 80s. I may have been a tiny bit like the Ally Sheedy character in The Breakfast Club, but I wasn't really her at all. I was never pretty in pink or any other colour, and no-one asked me to the prom; our year didn't have an Andrew McCarthy lookalike and anyhow, our schooldays weren't directed by John Hughes.

'It was a flight on the wings / Of a young girl's dreams / That flew too far away...'

Nostalgia reigns. Vintage and kitsch are cool again. Retro is the very latest thing and old is the new new. We overlay our too-perfect digital images with filters, to age them subtly like a fading Polaroid. Suddenly things like baking cakes and sewing our own clothes are hipster chic; Downton Abbey has a bigger following than The X Factor. The filters and the spin blur the edges of my memories of school. I know I was sometimes bored - angry - frustrated - upset - annoyed. I know I used to live in terror of the fire bell going off during Swimming, and dread the terrible inevitability of tripping myself up during double Hockey on a Monday afternoon. Looking back now, there is ghostly laughter. There's the time the mouse ran across the English room and the be-gowned teacher leapt onto her desk in a terrified, screaming arc. There are the concerts and the plays and music competitions, and all the backstage camaraderie of nerves. The Carol Concerts with tinsel everywhere. The Monday assemblies when the Headmaster would declare in solemn tones: 'And we must congratulate the First XV, narrowly defeated by a mere 72 points to 5. Great effort, chaps.' The Home Economics teacher who was sure I was good at something, dear, when my cookery went wrong again. The cool kids and the popular kids and the rebels without a clue. Time has written a narrative in the meantime, and memory has turned to unreliable narrator...

'He got the action, he got the motion...'

The cool kids are looking for our seven-inch memories, encapsulating what happened all those years ago into a playlist to be listened to on the night. I replied, of course, suggesting Don't You Forget About Me by Simple Minds, from the soundtrack of The Breakfast Club. I know what will happen. Everything else on the playlist will be cooler, more appropriate. Nostalgia with the s removed will turn to a condition of spinal pain. Looking back can be a painful thing to do... I'll be back again, as the awkwardly annoying teenager with the compulsion to argue with everyone, even teachers; to spout philosophy like a case study of pretentiousness, and to specialise in angst like I did before it really came into fashion.

'Will you recognise me? / Call my name or walk on by?'

Are school reunions just a festival of nostalgia, or are they an excuse to boast about what fantastic things you've done in those too-many intervening years? Will anyone recognise me? Will I remember anybody's name? Will I know what to say or be stunned by what people remember - or forget? Will the people who hated me, smile at me anyway? Will the people and the memories run on shuffle like the songs? It feels like facing day one of First Form over again.

But maybe even the songs you hated can sound good on a playlist of nostalgia.


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