Have you ever been to a school or college reunion? They can be delightful, terrifying, frustrating, intriguing, heart-warming or puzzling – or a mixture of all of these experiences! I have been to several for our secondary school, King Edward VI High School in Birmingham, where many of us have kept in contact over the years anyway. But the reunion that I went to about ten years ago was completely different – it was for pupils from my first school, where I started when I was only three and a half. And as I was moved from there aged seven, the time frame was in my very early years. As far as a reunion was concerned, it was something of a challenge – a real case of stepping into the unknown, since I had only been in touch with one other friend from there ever since the day I left. The experience led me to think about reunions in general, and how they can affect us, as they stir up memories from the depths. Or not, in the case of some major blanks! I decided to write down my impressions afterwards. This is how it went:
Arrival at Wottonley House School
I look around for familiar landmarks. I’ve stepped out of my car into the dark and wet, and notice other cars also pulling up, occupants getting out and casting an eye about, just as I am. The few lights shining show up a jumble of buildings which don’t bear an exact resemblance to my memory of this place. The main school house looming behind them is very much as I remember it though, a solid Victorian detached villa, which in the eyes of a child was large and imposing. Now I see that it’s a generous, one-family house, but not much more.
A deep breath, and I’m ready to go in. I haven’t set foot here since I was about eight years old. It was my first school, in Ash, a village near Sandwich in Kent, where I spent four or five happy years. It was known then as Wottonley House and was really, as one former pupil unkindly called it, ‘a dame school’. Indeed, it was started by a middle-aged spinster for the children of parents who were respectable, if not wealthy; they were prepared to pay modest fees to set their child on a rung of the ladder above that of the local Council Schools, as they were known. It aspired to some of the rather grim traditions of British private education – uniforms with ties, exams from an early age, strict rules on behaviour – but it was nevertheless a kindly setting for small and bewildered children. I was only three and a half when I first went, and I loved it. Not that I had much to compare it with! It’s still a school now, but under a new name and management, extended into bigger grounds and extra portacabin classrooms.
So here I am, back again. At the door to the new School Hall the two organisers sit smiling, handing out name badges. Here is Shirley, who has been working indefatigably for six months or more, gathering all the info from the far flung reaches of the internet, contacting someone who knows someone, and following up obscure leads until she has over a hundred names whose whereabouts are known, almost fifty of whom are coming this weekend. We are meeting for drinks on the Saturday evening, and lunch on the Sunday. Her friend and helper Maggie I suddenly remember. The doctor’s daughter, in whose fabulous house and garden we used to hold the Sports Days. It’s to be like that over the next two days, as memory is jolted out of its slumber, and all sorts of names and details bubble up to the surface.
I remember some people, and others remember me.
‘It’s Cherry Phillips!’ (my long-abandoned maiden name.) ‘You look just like your mother!’
My mother was a teacher at the same school; no matter that she was 5’ 2”, and I am 5’ 9”, that she had red hair and mine was dark brown, she was plump, and I am – no, let’s face it, not as slim as I used to be. Fair enough.
Now I meet in quick succession a dazzling array of blasts from the past, each arousing brightly-coloured snippets of memory, waving like flags in the breeze. Philippa, who I often played with on Saturdays, and whose mother sang opera lustily as she cleaned the house. Bob, whose father ran the local tobacconist’s shop which also inexplicably sold tennis rackets. (Or did they? Is this a curious trick of memory?) Sometimes the memories are best kept to myself, so I refrain from telling a solid pillar of the community that I remember his big feet with flapping sandals, or remind a well-groomed woman of how she once wee’d in the middle of the classroom floor. I can still see the puddle in my mind’s eye. I get on well with some that I scarcely remember, including an elegant lady who, unknown to both of us, lived close to me in Bath for many years, and some cheerful cousins of Carolyn, my former best friend at the school. (There are twenty-nine of these cousins, she tells me, though not all of them are here, which is probably just as well.) And as for Carolyn herself, we lost touch in our 20s about the time we each got married and started families. But now, to my utter surprise and delight, it’s as if we’d never drifted apart.
To my astonishment, one of our former teachers is also here. She must be well over eighty. Miss Bourne was sweet and cheerful, a safe haven to run to, and someone who would be kind rather than critical. She erroneously taught us that camels store their water in their humps, and that Jesus made a sparrow out of clay which flew away – a story I was fascinated to discover later which is only found in the folkloric apocryphal gospels. Where had she heard that? She also read us good stories after lunch during our enforced rest on thin army blankets on a hard wooden floor. Those restless, uncomfortable half-hours were made bearable by listening to ‘The Secret Garden’ or ‘The Jungle Book’.
But of Miss Cowell, the headmistress, people tell terrible tales, of how she flew into rages, and pulled them down the stairs by their hair or their ears. I do remember how she snapped and snarled, but she never dared to have a go at me – I had a charmed, protected life there, a teacher’s pet I am told now, under the aegis of my teaching mother. Once or twice I was even sent to stay with Miss Cowell in the holidays, at which point she dropped her fierce manner and became placid, and even motherly. She allowed me to paint large square biscuit tins white, to serve as rubbish bins. It was the first time anyone had let me loose with an adult brush and pot of paint, and I was in heaven. It was hot; I sat in the corridor where usually we left our coats and shoes, an area where in term-time children came thundering to and fro, and in perfect peace I painted away. I just had to take care that the blue bottle flies didn’t settle on the white paint.
The reunion restores fragments of my past to me, but also begins to give me a more objective and disturbing view of how I was then.
‘You had to have a sleep on Miss Cowell’s bed after lunch every day! We were told to be quiet and not to disturb you.’ Golly. Either I was a cute little lamb (I was certainly younger than most at three and a half) or a precocious pain in the butt.
‘You called your mother Mrs Phillips in class, but Mummy the moment you got into the car,’ recollects our surviving teacher.
Did I? That was quite a feat. And it’s a prompt: I suddenly recall letting slip ‘Mummy’ in class, and all the children roaring with laughter, my face feeling hot with shame.
‘You had been looked after by someone when your mother started teaching here,’ she continues, ‘but it didn’t work out, so she asked if she could bring you to school.’
Interesting. I have snapshot memories of being cared for by a woman called Vera who was unkind and regularly smacked my bottom. Even though, as a small child, I never thought that complaining would do any good, maybe my mother figured out the situation. I was certainly ready to come to school, and have an enduring memory of sitting in the dining room after lunch with ‘Listen with Mother’ on the radio, watching the dust motes dance in the sunbeams that were coming through the serving hatch while Mum did the washing up. Through the hatch, my mother asked me from the kitchen, ‘Would you like to go to school?’ Oh yes! I would, I would!
But memory is a trickster, artful in layering recollections together. Perhaps the conversation happened earlier, somewhere else in the house, and I was just remembering it as I sat listening to the radio. It seems odd that she would have asked me something so important through the serving hatch. And, as the former pupils dig into the detail over the next two days, we find gaps and clashes in our narratives. Some things we all remember – Swedish drill in the playground, and a new classroom being built. One person remembers elocution lessons, and the rest of us deny that we ever had them. With difficulty, we recall that the art teacher was called Miss Painter (yes, really). But I seem to be the only one to recall the big drawstring bag that held masses of polished wooden bricks, some shaped like arches and pillars, with which you could build impressive structures. I wasn’t alone though in recalling ‘Music and Movement’, broadcast through primitive speakers. ‘The sun is out, children, so skip, skip! Oh dear – now a rain cloud is coming! Jump over the puddles.’
Photos that people have brought of past events trigger distant memories. I see my mother in one, organising a race on Sports Day. This stirs me up, because here is another moment of her life, just when I thought I there were no more to be found. After her death, my brother and I went through all the photographs, which have since become imprinted on my mind as the total of her recorded life. Now I get a different take on her. Everyone keeps saying, ‘Your mother was a wonderful teacher!’ I didn’t know that. I struggle with this new definition, then step back from my own childhood impressions till I suddenly see her more objectively: at the time, she was still keen and relatively young, with a first-class training from Homerton College, Cambridge. After the disruption of the war and two children later, she was at last having a chance to use all that training. She could teach history, French and English, and play the piano for country dancing.
My father was teaching in another school in the area at the time, a boys’ grammar school where he was deeply unhappy, under a headmaster whom he hated. Stories about him, which I now heard from a man who’d gone on to that school from Wottonley House, were grim. His temper, always easily triggered, led to swiping his badly-behaved pupils with a metal-topped cane. I feel shame. But Mum, I realise now, was possibly at her happiest. She loved the little town of Sandwich, as I did too. But my father won out in his dissatisfaction and permanent restlessness; we moved house so that he could change jobs. Mum was sad, and I was devastated. One day, out on a walk by the river, I overheard my parents telling my maternal grandparents, who had come to stay, that we were going to leave Sandwich. It as like a bucket of ice tipped over me. I kept the dreadful knowledge to myself, till someone saw fit to mention it to me at a later date. And perhaps that first traumatic experience of uprooting has led to my own desire to switch locations every so often, much as I hated it at the time. As children do though, I adapted quite easily to a new life in the Midlands.
I relish a memory which three of us now share at the reunion. It’s of an extraordinary birthday party; we agree that it was the best one we ever went to, held in the garden of a huge, Lutyens designed house in Sandwich, known as The Salutation. A titled family lived there, with their two daughters and son, all of whom were pupils at Wottonley House. There was a treasure hunt in the orchard for the party, where we were each given a different strand of coloured wool, which we followed through the trees, unwinding it from branches and trunks, untangling it from the web other bright threads, until we reached the present at the other end, beautifully wrapped in tissue paper whose colour matched that of the thread. In dreary post-war Britain such things as coloured tissue paper were a luxury, that is if you could find them at all. ‘I tried to re-create this treasure hunt for a party recently,’ says the now well grown-up birthday girl, ‘but I couldn’t. I asked my mother how she did it, but she couldn’t remember.’
And it’s curious how facts can get distorted. Carolyn’s cousin clan begins to discuss their family history, and her older sister Jan says, ‘Our great grandfather was a Brook.’ It’s noisy in the school hall, and Carolyn hears this as, ‘Our great grandfather was a crook’. I, on the other hand, hear it as ‘…was a drunk.’ We discover our mistakes just in time before his reputation is lost forever.
The cauldron of my own past is now being stirred with a long stick. As discussion progresses amongst the assembled guests, sediment from the bottom of the pot floats up and colours the liquid above, producing feelings, vague memories, things that I can almost taste and smell but not name.
We pore over photos, trying to sort out names and faces, and ponder the geography of the school, which has changed. The playground is bigger now, but we recall its former shape, and how it held us all safely at break, the five-barred gate shut firmly while we played. How curious the games seemed to me when I first arrived at school, until I was initiated into them: ‘Farmer may I cross your Golden River?’ ‘What’s the Time Mr Wolf?’ ‘Grandmother’s Footsteps’ and ‘Witches and Fairies’. The agony when you waited to be chosen to be on someone’s side, and the excitement when you could finally take part. I also learnt fortune-telling by counting the stones on the plate after stewed prunes at lunchtime: Who will I marry? Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief! What will I get married in? Silk, satin, cotton rags. How will I travel to the wedding? Coach, car, carriage, dustcart. I suspect this kick-started my later interests in Tarot cards and astrology!
A Press photographer turns up to take our picture. One joker rolls up his trousers to expose his knees, schoolboy style. I and another woman are asked to put our arms around his shoulders and tickle his knees for a close-up shot. Then we all line up, grinning broadly, with our remaining teacher sitting in the middle, arm raised, swinging the old school bell.
The bell is also used by Shirley the organiser to summon us to lunch. She reads out the old rules of the dining room. ‘Line up quietly. Say thank you. When you have eaten your first course, talk quietly to the person on your left.’ Etc. This is news to me! I recall none of it. But along with others, I remember the horror of being forced to drink a bottle of milk in break, sometimes warmed on icy mornings and tasting even more disgusting as a result. Once I found a drowned blackbird feather in it. (Mrs Thatcher, Milk Snatcher? Maybe you did schoolchildren a favour!) I remember too one of the boys being sick after eating stew for lunch, and how I was both fascinated and repelled at the pieces of carrot spewed over the floor.
Visual memories have stuck, too, for me and others there. We had different pictures of fruit and flowers for our coat pegs so we could identify them before we learnt to read. (But did I have a Cherry? Not sure.) We drew pictures for Bible Study – I had trouble with the table legs splaying out sideways for ‘The Feast of Canaan’, but I liked the idea of turning water into wine and threw myself into portraying the ancient story with coloured crayons. We learnt simple French using picture cards for each object. I remember the deep purple of the plum, and the soft velvet of the cushion, each image painted on a varnished and slightly yellowed card.
We can’t quite agree on where the original School Hall was located, where we had Assembly every day. Apparently on my first few days I sent everyone into fits of laughter by calling out ‘Present’ after each name read out on the register. Well, I don’t remember that exactly, but I certainly did believe that saying ‘Present’ meant that I would be given one. At least one, and possibly more if I said it enough times. I must have been a very literal child.
By and large, we were all happy at this school, and the talk has been bubbly, enthusiastic. As the time comes to leave for the long drive home, I recognise, with some sadness, that this is a unique occasion, never to be repeated. I may see some of these people again, and indeed, since then I have done that, but the fact is that all of us will never be in this place together again. It has stirred and moved me, and left me both savouring and questioning the memories from the deep roots of the past.
This account was first written in 2008, and revised and updated for this blog in 2022. Photos below show a further reunion with Carolyn and her sister Jan, when they came to visit me in Devon a few years ago.
My book ‘Your Life, Your Story’ takes a look at the question of memory and of memoir writing. It also shows you how to tease out the stories from your life, and share them with others.
‘Growing Your Family Tree’ investigates the task compiling your family history, especially the aspects of field trips to ancestral places and also the lived experiences which are a part of genealogical research, such as finding new relatives, and discovering secrets from the past.