on education, nostalgia, memories and real life: a trip back to school

Today, I offer something different from what I usually write. Last week, I was fortunate enough to be given the chance to sing at a concert at my old school, to say goodbye to the retiring Headteacher and Head of Music. We had a day of rehearsals and reminiscing, and this is my attempt at describing how it felt.

I say goodbye to the kids and, although God knows I need the break, I still feel a little sad. Their tiny bodies, their inquisitive minds, their hearts and souls are so tightly bound up in my own identity right now, that to part feels painful. I know it will be better To Arrive than To Leave.

And it is. Four hours later, I’m two hundred miles away, sitting in the lounge of my school friend, eating pasta and drinking wine. Four of us are catching up, entrenched in our lives Now, although we met Back Then.

Morning arrives, my wake-up call not the being jumped on by small children, but the being rudely awaken by my phone. And then – we’re there. My visitor pass displays my maiden name. There is no husband, no kids, no married name – I am back to where I was. For one day only.

When I first see her, I notice she is a little older, hair a little longer, jokes a little quicker, showing the experience of nearly 18 years’ teaching – but otherwise just the same, this lady I admired so much that I followed her choice of University, college, career. I take my place in the Altos, and belt out the lines with confidence and experience of adult choral singing. But when she speaks, I take note – no less eager to please than I was back then.

There are greetings, as if coming back to old friends. Those we never spoke to, because they were a whole two school years away from us, are now contemporaries. People have sensible jobs. Actuaries, university lecturers, local government employees. The one we all envied has achieved her dream of West End stardom, and had a decade of glittering career – but now her life is filled with school runs and nappies and tantrums and fussy eaters, and doesn’t look a whole lot different to mine. We connect over mutual parenting stresses: our lives have converged at last.

It is all so strange and so other, and it will take me several days to process all the emotions. A few months ago, I visited the place I lived after graduating, and that felt like an age away, but this is two life stages before that. It almost feels like it never happened – and yet, as I re-connect, I find that so much of me comes from this place, so much of me was formed within these walls, through these people.

When I sing, I hear a voice next to me, booming out with frustrating accuracy. It is imagined of course, she is not really there, but I want her to be. She was my sixth-form friend, my choir buddy, my fellow musician – and our paths have taken us in different directions. Until this moment, I am unaware just how much of my early musical development is down to her.

When I meet my former teachers, I am aware that I am giggly and talk too much, unsure whether I’m adult or child. I feel guilty when I check my phone, naughty for wearing jewellery, rebellious for having loose hair. He, of course, hasn’t changed – slightly less hair, slightly greyer – still the utterly inspiring musician, passionate about training up youngsters in the art. Now I understand what he does and why – but of course back then I took it for granted.

The concert begins, and it’s the ’90s all over again, but with hair straighteners and a Florence and the Machine song. We sing ‘My Way’, and, although it’s been 15 years, I believe I could do this without music. The notes find their way into my voice as if it were yesterday – only now I sing the words with conviction, feeling Old and Experienced. Life has been lived, mistakes made, lessons learned. As I ponder this, it feels arrogant. In another 15 years I will look back at my 33-year-old self and remember her as naive. At 48 I will scoff at her and think “Now I know what it means to live” – and I will do this again at 63, and at 78. But, for now, I’m remembering the last 15 years. The dreaming spires. The boy who broke my heart. The failed interviews. The work politics. The developing faith. The construction of identity. The boy I married. The promotion. The people who have moulded me into my adult self. So much has happened since I last sang these words, that although pitch and rhythm are unaltered, the sentiment has become alive.

Music is not one place, one time – it twists around every era of our lives, joining past and present, young and old, evoking memories sweet and sad. We sing ‘Nobody does it better’ – the altered words speak fondly of the Headteacher to whom we’re saying goodbye, but to me the song also represents my marriage, the mix tape which signalled the start of a relationship which became significant. The boys perform a Beach Boys number, a cappella, at a standard well beyond their years – and I’m taken back to teaching, and the boys I coached to sing, and the difficulties of encouraging them to do it at all. I’m singing Handel’s ‘Hallelujah’ in the same place as where I first sang it but its memory isn’t fixed in school. To me, the Messiah is PGCE choir, and church performances, and teaching, and choral singing in Cambridge.

I say a few words about the teachers who made such a big impact on me. The audience is receptive, and the laughs greater than any I was expecting. For the first time ever, I hold the Hall – the Hall where I stood as a nervous Year 7, singing the assembly hymn, or where I performed as a Sixth-Former, uneasily shuffling onto the piano stool, and always too embarrassed to acknowledge applause. The self-consciousness is gone – this is me.

For a few short seconds, I wonder about the potential of moving the family down here, to get a teaching job at this incredible place. It is ridiculous – and I feel guilty for even thinking I could give up Real Life so easily, so quickly. But that’s the effect of inserting history into the present: everything distorts. Like feeling sad that my own children won’t be educated here. History not repeating, but distorting, rose-tinting.

Afterwards there are more hugs and greetings and catch-ups, and the chance to drink wine at the school’s expense which somehow seems necessary and long overdue. The day has been a whirlwind of nostalgia and remembering why I am who I am – but I am very pleased to leave with a friend, very pleased to anchor myself in the security of a friendship which has continued these 15 years since school, and will continue into the unknown.

 

3: hospitality = generosity (the boy with the packed lunch)

This is part of a mini-series on hospitality. Click on the ‘Hospitality’ tab at the top of the page to read the other posts. If you’re encouraged or challenged by it, please consider sharing it with someone you think would appreciate it too. Thank you!

There are two choices.

He knows which path he’d rather take – he’s starving, and it feels like years since his last meal, although he realises it’s only been hours. His body is aching for food, for energy to fuel the changes going on inside his body, changes which he isn’t yet aware of.

His mother, however, is only too aware of how much her boy is growing up – the amount of food he’s getting through gives it away. Snacks are never enough; meals always end with a request for seconds. He may be gone for hours today, and she knows he won’t last without sustenance, so she’s packed a hefty meal for him, rich in carbs and protein, to keep him going.

And he’s desperate for it. Desperate. But no one else seems to have anticipated the length of the talk, so there’s no food apart from his, and he recognises the look of pain and envy of the other boys his age, not to mention the younger ones, who are starting to cry and thrash their little bodies around in a hopeless hunger they can’t articulate. He knows that if he did start to eat, they’d be on his food like pigeons.

There seems no option: the message is communicated, the food shared. Of course it won’t go round everyone, but perhaps it will be a little snack for those who need it most: the kids, the old people, the pregnant mammas. And then the cheek-pinching moment: the food is coming back to him – not just the five loaves and two fish his mum had packed (doesn’t she realise he could eat at least four?) – but baskets and baskets of bread and fish: as much as he can eat, and then some more. And everyone around him seems to be getting their fair share too. Who is this Jesus who appears to be multiplying food?

***

I love that this boy ends up with more than he had originally. He starts off with one basket containing five loaves and two fishes. Everyone has enough to eat – and then the leftovers consist of twelve baskets. We don’t know what his appetite was like on that particular day (although we could make a reasonable guess, seeing as he was a Boy, and we’re talking about Food), but we do know that the potential was there for him to eat more than he would have done, had he not shared. The boy’s generosity in giving away all his food resulted in far more for everyone – including himself.

Jesus, being God, could have multiplied the five loaves and two fishes exactly, to meet the appetites of those who were there. But I think the fact that there was a surplus brings us a clear message about the abundant, lavish generosity of our God – the God “who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). The verse goes on: “…how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?”

If we want to see God’s overflowing provision, we need to be prepared to give all of what we have, just as the young boy gave all of his packed lunch. This is a common thought in evangelical circles (I’m giving you my all, You can have everything…) but we tend to practice it mainly in the abstract. How often do we consider that perhaps God wants us to give all of something literal, something physical? Our food, our wine, our homes, our toys? [Disclaimer, although probably unnecessary: God doesn’t want us to go overdrawn in our attempt to be generous! But, like any Biblical teaching on giving, the emphasis is not so much on what we give, but on what we keep. God knows what we can afford, and what we can’t. The young boy gave all he had for that particular meal – but presumably he would have had more food at home. Are we being as generous as we can afford to be?]

It may be helpful to consider the reasons why we withhold things we could be giving in hospitality. I can identify several factors in my own experience:

1) personal feelings – when I’ve laid out a ‘perfectly good’ meal and someone asks for something I haven’t offered, which I could easily bring out, I bristle. It seems like a personal insult. What’s wrong with what I’ve offered them? Why don’t they like this meal?

2) concern for the future – sometimes I try to scrimp because I’m unduly worried about what we’ll eat for the next few days. Will we have enough? Don’t we need to save that for tomorrow’s dinner? I was hoping to use that cake for … etc.

3) laziness – sometimes I withhold kindness or favours simply because I can’t be bothered. It’s too much effort. It’s not really needed.

Hospitality is not easy. There will be times when our feelings get trampled, when we wonder whether we can really afford to be generous, and when we’re tired and lacking in energy. I’ve lost count of the times when I’ve given hospitality with gritted teeth. But the model shown to us by the boy who shared his packed lunch reminds us that it is God who does the miracle, not us. We are not expected to be anything other than broken human beings, opening our broken homes to other broken people. But we are expected to draw on God’s strength to forgive hurtful comments, trust in His provision for our families, and tap into His resources when we’re at the end of our own.

I’m often resentful if someone asks me for more. Fortunately, God doesn’t have this same attitude when we ask Him for things – quite the opposite: He loves to be given the opportunity to give us more! Not that He needs the opportunity, of course, but that He loves it when we ask. Do I ask Him to make me more generous?

To grow in our practice of hospitality, we must also grow in our practice of generosity. Both reflect the character of God, and only God can grow these traits in our lives. The result of the boy’s generosity was that everyone got fed. The result of Jesus’ generosity is that everyone can have a relationship with God. He “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:7).

Whatever the cost, are we prepared to serve those who enter our home generously – knowing that, by doing so, we are introducing our generous God to an impoverished society?