Monday, October 05, 2009

School reunion: one of the strangest days of my life

This is the year of cleaning decks, facing demons, giving up on errant parents and generally moving on. A trigger point for this resolution has been the looming, now-actualised, 20 year reunion of my year 12 class from St Ignatius Riverview. The 2 years I spent there conincided with and partly triggered the darkest period of my life, a source of recurring anger as well as drive and determination. Facing them has drawn out bleeding wounds and gnashing demons from my soul, and together with the process of considering my own children's education this prospect has created a quiet but nagging feedback loop in my mind, shutting down the subsequent, largely happy and successful decades and triggered the white noise of awkward uncertainty, vulnerability, revenge fantasies, and more benign hopes of restitution and deliverance.

It didn't shape up as a picnic. The prospect gave painful focus to my pushups and bag work and wound its way into most deep-and-meaningfuls with my wife. I went alone. I flew in and out the same day. I psyched up pretty hard to remain on my best behaviour. And while I slipped about 3 times I otherwise, largely, made it through. There was some deliverance, and it was, on balance, a good thing to have done.

Perhaps tellingly, many of the people I liked the best weren't there. This is a slightly edited version of what I emailed to 4 of them, capturing the moment as a disjointed set of impressions...

It was surreal. I've been completely out of touch with nearly all those guys for 20 years, and of those I would have liked to catch up with most, few were there... despite a big turnout (maybe close to 100?) yourselves notably together with the likes of Bolivia, Bonney, Foreshaw, Mitch, Forrest, Evo and others I looked around for were either unrecognisable to me or absent.

Of course, I have to say I understand. I had to face certain demons otherwise I might have stayed home and cut my toenails or something. As it happens, it wasn't too bad. There were upsides...

'Goodo' was probably an upside.Though I'd psyched myself to stay completely away from him, as he'd built up in my head as a sort of arch nemesis, I saw him on the night looking quite laid back, not really fitting in there, a bit indie, so I changed my mind. He turned out to be one of the nice surprises, apologised profusely for ever being less than decent, and talked of having dropped out of chartered accountancy to pursue meaning in music, films and more recently trying to become a music lawyer. I realised he'd felt more of an outsider at the time than I knew, perhaps explaining some of the behaviours I resented. I walked away liking the guy as he is now and largely dropping my personal indignations towards his youthful self. An apology, even 20 years later, can work wonders if it seems genuine.

Though largely on best behaviour, I slipped here and there. I told my old maths teacher in what was meant to be a compliment that although he was a real prick sometimes, he'd also been one of the best teachers I ever had. He used this as the opener to his speech (!) and finished with a return backhander about "who'd have thought that fella would turn out so well"! Fair enough, I asked for that and indeed it became an ice breaker from then on!

I was also approached by a brick shithouse of a country bloke who'd been expelled in year 10. His one past encounter with me was to walk over once and shove me down an embankment. As he didn't look like he'd changed and I was getting a bit tired of nice small talk, when he asked how we knew each other I told him exactly. That kept us nice and short! I did try to smile.. and wished him a pleasant life!

[I'd meant no antipathy but you dear reader know I'm prone to speaking my mind and I think my superego just faltered for a moment's rest, allowing the id to poke through... I'm sure he's now a nice guy, or something... actually ran into another of the guys who were expelled before I started, and he, also a man mountain, was one of the nicest people I spoke to all day. Ran a martial arts school of all things. I digress...]

Speeches were interesting. One guy gave a slow, melancholy rant that was a bit sad, I didn't pick up much of it. Another did a big spiel about some "lezzos" that was as charming as it sounds. At least I wasn't the only one who didn't laugh.

Someone did an old hardcore warcry which was kinda fun, kinda surreal. I think at that point 2 clear thoughts crystalised for me at the same time:

1) these guys aren't as bad as I remembered, as individuals, most are pretty nice in a laddish sort of way; and

2) the collective judgements about class, privilege, and the limits of an exclusive education that I made at 16 were actually bang on the mark.

Andrew O'Keefe [aside from Tony Abbott, our most famous Old Boy] stepped up and was, of course, hilarious. There was something about his swagger that said 'I'm THE success story here, and you WILL stop shouting "DEAL OR NO FCUKING DEAL" and actually give me some deference!' But he WAS very, very entertaining! He was always so.

I got a lot of "gee you are so much taller", which I am, compared, and I suppose is a good result at a reunion! It may be because I was a scrawny runt who was too young for my year in school, but you've got to take compliments in all their forms.

People were nice, generally. Some definitely had wanker vibes going on but what did surprise me is that a lot of others seemed also to be a bit nervous, awkward. The number still palpably bursting with the pent up pressure of expectation and social place was notable for someone like myself who mixes with a lot of 'lefties, losers and artistic strays'. It made it easier to like them, while at the same time feeling there is little I could stake out in common with the majority.

Apart from the 'honest moments' above, I found myself congratulating a lot of people on their lives, and meaning it. I lost most of my antipathy towards the school experience in a matter of hours.

And at the same time I realised that some of my past judgement wasn't just derived from being depressed and awkward at 16. Those schools, environs, swirling pools of self-perpetuating privilege, all do something funny to people. It doesn't make them evil, but it does explain why 'that end of town' can at times be so heartless, callous, and detached from the rest of the world.

I walked out into the rain in the early evening, in a good mood. Some surprises, some things exactly where I expected. I missed my family and my life in Melbourne, and knew a massive wound had just been cauterised....

When I got home Bear and Mitts were asleep. I kissed their heads, told them how much I love them. I sank back into my little Melba townhouse and decided that this is a good year. The world is not such a bad place.

Clearing the decks at 37, TBC shortly...


Kelly said...

my 20 year high school reunion was fantastic. Incredibly cathartic and affirming. All the outcast 'nerds' had turned their passions in to very uber cool careers and oozed urban confidence and the jocks were middle aged farts with nothing going for them. All the glam girls were mainstram normal and the daggy ones had metamorphed into interesting women. S\It so very turned all my high school insecurities on their head and reinforced the 'we are not our teen selves' it takes a decade and a bit to overcome! Onya.

Elisabeth said...

A similar experience for me. One of my worst enemies at my convent school reunion, a girl whom I have written about in short stories and the like, turned out to be a gentle and lovely woman, despite her cruelty to me when we were teenagers. And the girls who were slack and unsuccessful at school moved beyond the inadequacy of their education in a small Catholic convent to get decent mature age educations. Some were now lawyers, and playwrights, doctors and the like. How did they do it? I wondered in my schoolgirl head.
It confirms for me yet again, how much things change.

Ann ODyne said...

article in last Weekend Australian quotes famous Victoria Coren, dtr of famous Alan,
saying she was fat, friendless, and alienated at her posh London school; POSH Spice biog says she was acne-ed and friendless at her school where Dad dropped her daily via Rolls-Royce .
I commend to all hesitant reunion attendees, the viewing of not-so-silly movie Romy & Michele's High School Reunion.
Great Post BrandyMan. Congratulations!

Armagny said...

Woops- comment here:

Tony from Aftergrogblog said 'Where's your post about the house in depreston?'

Answer- it's coming, it's coming...

JahTeh said...

You are a brave man, good sir.
I would not go near my school reunion if they were handing out money at the front door.

Penthe said...

I was planning on going to mine next week, but day-to-day events have prevented it. I am relieved.

Unknown said...

I went to the 30 year one, the best thing was catching up wiht favoruite teachers. The 40 is coming up and I was going to wimp it anyway, but fortunately work has intervened so I don't need to. Stupid how we carry all this rubbish around in our heads, surely if you're still breathing after all these years you msut be doing relatively OK. My excuse is that I don't feel like travelling for a day to see people I didn't talk to while we were actually at school together.

Unknown said...

Acck I'm signed in as my daughter, help!


Yikes wv is "finesse", surely did that.

phil said...

Me actually.