Sometimes, in a school, a year group will become closer than friends, and something closer to family. A community somehow woven in to the fabric of each other’s lives as a united entity. My year was not like that. My year – our year – was not particularly close at all. People had friends, obviously, but there were no diehard best mate unions and every few years when the school shuffled our classes around, the lines of friendship got smudged too. There was no overarching core team, no key group of friends. We were a year made up of much smaller clusters who mostly orbited each other: occasionally joining forces and coming together, but equally splintering off into new groups every so often.
I know this is true because the teachers noticed this too. I remember one of my tutors saying “you’re a very disconnected year” (side note: what a weird observation to share with a teenager) and maybe we were. Another teacher described us as a year that had been “eager to get out for some time” in one of our final assemblies, which felt a bit of an unncessary jibe even if it was likely true. I guess we had a reputation for being a year of misfits, unlike the pal-ly, exuberant year below us or the close-knit, familial year above us.
Occasionally though, our year did come together in a united front and those moments felt surprisingly familiar and warm, even though they were so rare. Most of those moments of communal fun happened in our final year (not coincidentally the year we became legal drinkers). There was that one house party that literally everyone went to. That last Wednesday of term where pretty much all of us went clubbing to the same place. The final day of A-Level exams and the jubilant pub trip after. At first it would feel a bit strange hanging out en masse and seeing random people talking to each other, but after about five minutes it was like, “oh yeah, of course you know each other”, and random friendships seemed distinctly less so when we had 7 year of history between us all.
The last day of school was probably the most memorable occasion. School was ending, regular protocol was out the window, and people’s social (nay, life) statuses in flux. Everyone signed everyone else’s shirt and we all went and got pissed together in a pub by the river. Earlier in the day, we’d had our school leavers assembly, where for the first (and obviously, last) time, absolutely everyone sang the hymn at full volume. It was a euphoric moment. After 7 years of bored-looking kids shuffling around mumbling during hymns nobody really knew, the entire school chapel was filled with the sound of about 80 newly-adult people bellowing en masse. I remember laughing when the song ended and everyone looking around at each other: people were both triumphant and in shock, as if slightly taken aback at their own combined force. Like we’d somehow surpassed some individual barrier and reached a level we didn’t know we could. “Gosh,” said our deputy head, vaguely stunned, unsure how to proceed with the script, “I wasn’t expecting that”. Neither were we.
So, to last Friday and my high school reunion. In the ten years since we left school, I have kept in touch with precisely one person. The reunion was announced a couple of months ago via an e-mail maybe 20 people received, and nobody seemed to know anything about it. There were a few Facebook statuses tagging in anyone who happened to still be in touch (and, obviously, still using Facebook); there was a poll, with varied responses; there was a message that not enough people had bought a ticket and they weren’t entirely convinced about putting the event on at all. In hindsight, really, it was a classic “our year” thing: a going-through-the-motions attempt that barely gathered enough collective momentum to qualify. That’s our year all over.
And yet, it was nothing like that at all. The first, and most surprising thing, is the number of people. I was expecting 25-30 people, but when I arrive it is at least 50, maybe close to 60. And so many of the faces I recognise immediately. I sat by you in Spanish. Your mum drove me home after a party. We went to Thorpe Park together. “How are you? How’s your mum?” I said instinctively to one boy – man, now – as I had a sudden and very distinct image of his mother passing me a plate of food. “Not great” he said; I’m sad, I should have kept in touch.
It is a strange combination of nerves and excitement to be there. I was concerned people would be trying to out-impress each other but no, everyone is just glad not to be the only person there. (Low bar: again, classic our year). Some people don’t recognise me even though I’ve looked the same since I was about 5. “Your fringe was longer,” said one ex-classmate. “You used to have glasses”. I still do. “Have you grown taller?” Not since I was 16, but I’ve been standing straighter these days.
People have kept up, if not in touch: that is another very surprising thing. I personally was not expecting anyone to know what I was doing. How private and unassuming I thought I still was! People have seen me at Quizney; on the news; read the blog. When we catch up, there are questions missing, and I know that’s because some people have already found answers via whatever scraps of the internet we communally use. Turns out pretty much everyone is using Facebook and that is the weirdest thing to me: about five times I found myself thinking “what the fuck is on Facebook?” (apparently not Ryan). I associate Facebook with people who wear khaki, have children, shop in M&S, aged 38+, registered voters. It is weird to realise there are people my age who have never seen an Instagram Story or liked a Tweet. When I get home I write my sober self a note: USE FACEBOOK MORE, mainly because I feel bad to have to counter “How was your show in Edinburgh?” with “What do you do?” but at the same time, it’s been a while.
In one way, it is nice to give people the edited highlights. “I’m engaged. I’m doing my dream job. I have focus and agency and I am happy.” But there is another version of events I’m leaving out; “I have been to six funerals and given two eulogies. Sally is slowly dying. I am poor.” It feels a bit dishonest, but I think everyone is leaving out their alternative events. And I wonder if this is the biggest thing that strikes me about our year: when we were there we were so focused on not being there. The final year of school felt exclusively like one long slog towards getting to university or going travelling. Just generally going somewhere that wasn’t there.
And now things are different: we can look back, we can look around, we aren’t so focused on being outwards. And that’s not something we ever did (not in my opinion, anyway). The final thing that surprises me is the triumph. Everyone was chatting, and smiling, and largely being the exact same people they were ten years ago. And it was that same sort of self-assuring joy, that same feeling of surprise and mutual approval: I am reminded forcibly of that moment in the last assembly where everyone was grinning at each other. Look at what we’ve managed to pull off! Look at us! We actually turned up! It’s not totally shit! People were grinning at each other and using the same exclamatory tones “what a turn-out!”. “I can’t believe so many people came!”. “It’s actually really nice!”. And it reminded me of those few, fleeting moments before we all collectively left: look at what it’s like when we all do something together!
It is so strange to experience the same emotion communally. The end of the night is a massive rush of people going to Waterloo to get the same train back to Surrey, which is a scenario that may as well have been the end of a communal gig in 2008, except people are scrambling 10 years into 2 minutes of dashed conversation instead of just saying “see you on Monday!”. We all hurriedly say we should meet up more; are you still in Walton; I meant it – did you; sorry we didn’t speak more tonight. Time will tell. It always does. See you in another ten.