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.