Centenaries come around only so often. If you’re there for one you won’t be there for the next. Your old school is having theirs and it’s fifty years since you first pushed your treadly through the gates, you rarely return to the town of your youth, there’s little reason to.
And you wonder why exactly you’re here. A search for meaning you suppose, a search for meaning where there is none.
It’s not that dismal but the old school is not the old school or at least it’s not the old location. It’s now on what used to be the southern extremity of the town. The hospital marked the edge in the old days, then the Drive-In cinema long gone, but beyond is the new school in a spreading new town.
The old town had a population of 5,000. It’s now 25,000 but not the 25,000 the mayors of the Fifties and Sixties hoped it would be with their dreams of progress, industry and jobs for young men in particular. Now the town is five times as large but there’s little work going, a lot of people on social security and for many in work it’s a commuter town, an 80k drive each way each day to the city. Who should be so lucky?
In attending this reunion you hope to bump into someone or two you know, a classmate, a mate from the cricket team, you’ll want to know how they’ve made out, what they’re up to, whatever the drift.
You find the new school and there’s a lot of strangers milling about. You register and write your name on a card. The cards represent a decade, in your case the Sixties who are identified by a red ribbon. You struggle to see people wearing red ribbons but when you do you don’t know them and they don’t know you and then most of them look so damned old. But then its been fifty years.
When you checked the Centenary website it mentioned a barbecue lunch and you thought OK, a barbie would be nice, social, you’d stand around with a chop in one hand, a red in the other and all would be well with the world. Now you’re here you discover you had to book for the barbie. Who the hell has heard of booking for a barbie? You wonder about the committee of anal retentives who organised this show. Surely a few hundred extra snags could’ve been purchased if demand looked like exceeding supply.
Instead you make do with a baked potato and coleslaw, you have difficulty finding the red, and when you do you’ve never heard of it, and when you put it to your lips its come straight out of the fridge. What is it with these folks?
John V. His name is scribbled big in texta on his card. You wouldn’t have recognised him but you knew the name. His response: ‘We were in that Physiology class together, two boys and 23 girls.’
He was confident then, he played the lead in the school play (Jane Eyre) and his girlfriend played Jane, and it had a romantic ending with a long, long, lingering kiss.
‘Yeah, and you were away the week we did Sexual Reproduction and so there was just me and the 23 girls.’
And you were shy, awkward, didn’t know where to look.
John had done well. After leaving school he’d become a PMG technician, junked that, joined the RAAF, got into electronics, took a degree, got into acoustics, runs his company in Queensland, said he’d seen your name thereabouts, knew you were a writer.
The dux of school told of a woman whose name followed his alphabetically in class. She felt her English grades were always marked down because his essays were ‘so bloody brilliant’. It sounded a peculiar thing to say, like she’s been carrying a grudge for fifty years. At least now she’s expressed it.
An old bloke seemed lost, maybe he was. He’d gone to live in a nearby railway town in 1961. He was going to stay six months and it’s 2013 and he’s still there.
Red ribbons, two women were in the same year, different class. One worked for a few years in a bank, married, had five kids to a dairy farmer, plenty of grandchildren. The other married a farmer from the Mallee, had five kids too, grew wheat, barley, ran cows, sheep, pigs, raised chickens. ‘You know how it is?’
Memorabilia for sale. You’d heard a school history was being produced – $50 paperback, $100 hardback. You’re a historian, you’d like to have a memento but it was really just an expanded school magazine, no context. Why can’t the state schools make an effort with these things? Otherwise no name bottles of wine, glasses, coffee mugs. Pass.
You see a bloke who looks like he stepped out of an old school mag. ‘You’re the tennis player’, you say and he replies ‘Cricket, golf’ to acknowledge your place on the sporting map. He’s done OK, been teaching English the last twenty years in a private school where he coaches tennis as well, says his game is still in good shape. He adds that his son is running for the Liberals in the coming election and it turns out the son is standing in your seat. The father presses you to vote for the son, you nod but don’t disclose your intentions.
You meet one former teacher you remember only vaguely. He taught Ag and stayed on in the town. You’re most surprised to see another teacher who you would have imagined to have been the last person to attend this reunion. Dippy was given hell in his first year out of training college and had no idea of maintaining discipline despite his classroom being next door to the headmaster’s office. He left at the end of second term and everyone assumed he’d had a breakdown and if he had a future in the Education Department it would be shuffling paper in head office.
Not so, you learn that he transferred to another high school in the Riverland and had a satisfying career. At seventy he appears calm and serene so unlike the flustered twenty-year-old with a freshly minted science degree. Maybe he came back to confront his early tormentors.
Group photos are taken according to decades and so you assemble with a couple of hundred of others from the Sixties. Gloria, you remember from the Convent school as you knew her brothers when you were thirteen. Margaret’s brothers you knew too – they were cricketing buddies. You should have asked to be remembered to them but you never know. There’s a chance one or the other has passed on. There’d be a pause in conversation.
That’s about it, assembly over, disperse.
You think of all thousands of kids who went through the school, the hundreds at least you were acquainted with, and you’ve run into one from your own class, a handful you recall. Disappointed? Worth going back? Yeah, why not?