I didn't have a happy time at school. I was clever, and bored most of the time so I became rebellious. Smoking became interesting, as did drinking. After my GCSE's I changed schools, being awarded a music scholarship to a well-known boarding school. I got into very serious trouble in my first term, and was allowed to stay only because I was a scholar and because the Master of the school happened to be away (I was being dealt with by his second in command, the Head of Punishments - yes, that was a thing).
But this lifeline I was given was like a dog leash tugging at my neck, choking the air out of my throat. My housemaster watched me like a hawk. Countless examples I could give you of times he'd seen fit to punish me for something for which others had been let off scot-free. 'Well, boys will be boys!' just didn't apply to me. I received a 'caution' once for being found sitting (*throws hands up in mock horror*) on my male friend's bed. Line me up in front of the firing squad. I'd started smoking when I was 14 so, along with hundreds of others in the school, I was caught from time to time and forced to pay the price. But the punishments I received for persistent (and minor) rule-breaking caused me to sink into a deep depression. I was only 18.
I was very unwell. I could barely get out of bed. I recall my mum remarking once in horror, when I'd come home for a holiday weekend, that I could barely walk. I used to fantasise about my duvet and pillows, counting down the minutes in lessons and music practice before I could return to them. My mum used to send me daily poems and little cards to try and keep me going. It was touch and go, I was so severely unhappy. My housemaster was even visited by my parents who were less than pleased with his treatment of me. I'd never amount to anything, he said.
So you can imagine my surprise when I received an email 'FAO Jo Furnival', which was forwarded to me by my colleague from our generic contact address, inviting me personally, having been tracked down from my previous job to my current one, to come and talk about my career to the GCSE students. I think I accepted out of curiosity. And I suppose I was flattered. There are thousands of alumni they could have asked and who would have been just as easy to track down. The school that once considered me to be a problem was now taking the time to find me.
I'd anticipated that returning to this place, which was so cold, dark and gloomy in my mind, would bring to the surface some traces of the trauma that I'd felt when I'd lived there. But as I drove into the car park, I felt as though I was driving into a school car park; as I navigated my way on foot past the science block, the chapel and up into the central court, I just felt as though I was walking through a traditional school grounds. That was all. The sun was shining, it was quite a nice day.
From the moment I arrived at the meeting place, (which, coincidentally, had also been to where we were summoned on a Saturday to begin our 'day of punishments' in atonement for smoking), I was welcomed. I introduced myself to the teacher in charge, and he responded, "I know, Jo. We're very grateful for you taking the time to come back."
The children, 15 and 16 year olds, who I'd considered to be snobbish and fake during my time as a pupil, were attentive and well mannered. And, what's more, they were just...well, children. The possibility that they might hold opinions about me that were negative in any way didn't cause me distress at all. It didn't really elicit any emotion whatsoever. Contrary to what I'd expected, my feeling about it all was rather, *shrugs shoulders* 'oh well, doesn't matter'. Perhaps this is the magic of being in my 30s.
Afterwards, the pupils and teachers gave the alumni a round of applause, and we went our separate ways, the pupils to their supper, the staff and alumni to ours in the Common Room, a place I'd never known about, much less visited. As we entered the vast, cavernous dining hall on our way to the more private dining facilities, I felt something. I stopped and turned around, looking all the way from one end to the other, remembering walking into it with my friends, reminded by the familiar noise and smell, the buzz. Then the feeling was gone. A vague memory that was a million years ago, it seemed. Perhaps it hadn't even been me.
Happily, my favourite teacher, an example of compassion and someone who'd always seemed genuinely to care about the people he was teaching, was waiting in the Common Room to say hello. He hadn't changed a bit. And we all set about chatting, staff and former pupils, as human being to human being. People seemed genuinely pleased to see me. I can't tell you how surprising that was to me.
Yes, I went back to my old school, a place that had introduced me to the greatest kind of sadness, where I'd never felt accepted. I shone a light into the murk and gloom of my memory. And it was fine. Because, funnily enough, when you turn the light on, all you see is what is actually there. Gone is the empty blackness, and the sinister movement in the shadows that your mind creates.
I didn't see my housemaster though. I wonder how he'd appear to me in the light of day.