Bittersweet nostalgia

(While writing this, I listened to a playlist of my favorite songs from school. It’s here if you’re curious.) Also, this was originally published in February.

There’s a saying that painters like painting, actors like acting, musicians like playing music, and writers like having written.

In that case, school is a lot like writing.

Few, if any people, actually enjoy it at the time. No one likes being schooled. 

But we do like the feeling of having been schooled, of having that shared experienced. (I’m not talking about the educational aspects here, more the social/personal side.)

We like compressing it into one image or sound bite, a decade distilled into a flickering moment. For me, that image I recall is a hodgepodge of sensory memories. 

The feel of a baggy navy blue wool jumper, my hand cramping into a fist at the end of each exam, sunlight spilling across a cricket field, a nook in the library where I read during breaks. Sometimes mundane details come to define a particular time in our lives.

***

Every so often, I see someone in the street wearing my old school uniform. My reflex is to read them in the same way they would have once read me. 

Calculate their year group from the length of their blazer sleeves. Note their house from a lapel button. Gauge which groups they belong to. Don’t tell me you couldn’t do the same at the sight of someone from your own school.

Two or three times a year, I’ll drive past my old school buildings. Less often, I’ll see a teacher in the street and more often I’ll get served by a cashier or barista I went to school with. We usually didn’t know each other well enough to acknowledge it. We conceal our mutual recognition through that flickering half eye contact reserved for quasi-strangers.

Each reminder feels like a slap in the face. That. Them. Then. There. For a moment I ignore it, before the nostalgia hits.

I remind myself that it’s too soon for nostalgia. Too soon for laying on the rose-tinted lacquer. To soon to feel anything other than relief it’s over. I’m moving soon and look forward to escaping these reminders — when I’m away I never, ever think about school.

But our emotional ties to the past pay no attention to logic.

I drive past those buildings and miss their sterile smell, squeaky lino floors and hum of chatter. I see someone in uniform and feel a pang of jealousy for their structured lives. I find myself struggling to recall the name of a teacher or classmate, or the grade I got in a final exam and it scares me. I’ve forgotten so much so fast.

***

One reason we miss school once we leave is because it’s often our first experience of true loss.

Once you’re done with school, that’s it. With a few exceptions, you can’t go back and do it all again like you can with university or college. Many of us get to our teens without experiencing a big, tangible, loss that changes our lives. Then school ends and we confront the close of an era that has defined the majority of our lives. Unlike other endings, we can’t even easily revisit it. Schools change faster than a hometown or a workplace or a favorite hangout. And most of their key rituals are detached from adult life.

I will never again receive a tidy little timetable on the first day of term, my time planned out for me already. I will never again sit cross-legged on the floor for assembly. Or receive a report card telling me exactly how I’m doing.

Not that I would want a repeat. Not at all. It’s just disconcerting to know I can only touch that time through memories, discussions with friends, papers, photographs, music.

Most of us don’t even have any memories from before we started school. By the time we leave, it’s all we know. Our identities have grown around our role within a class.

Social circles, grades, sports, musical instruments, rebellion — we exist in relation to these manifestations of character.

Sever those ties and it’s time to start again from scratch. We’re told school will prepare us for work but we don’t believe that. The time that now stands between us and adulthood seems inconsequential.

Four pictures taken with 35mm film when I was fifteen.

Collective delusions of snowflakehood

There’s another reason why I think we miss school. We believed at the time that we were something special. That’s not an easy feeling to find as an adult.

In English classes, I always did well. I often came top, I won awards, one teacher said my essay was the best they had ever marked on that topic. Etc etc etc. Having now written full time for over a year, I’m grateful for the confidence that gave me.

But who wouldn’t miss the collective delusion that the world was waiting for your talents? 

Who wouldn’t miss being labeled as the best at something with minimal effort? 

Who wouldn’t miss being an entitled little shit and not even knowing it?

We miss that in the same way we miss pajama parties, our parents packing a lunch, and gold stars. It was easy. Simple. We didn’t question it. If we do try to get too close to the memories, it becomes obvious that we weren’t the prodigious geniuses we felt like. I remember how we always got two marks for each subject: one for attainment (i.e. our actual grade) and one for effort.

It always seems incomprehensible to think that the same machine I went through is still chugging along. The same teachers in the same rooms, teaching the same curriculum, to girls in the same ugly uniform, at the same desks.

Self portraits, ages 13-17. 

By the time I turned sixteen I felt suffocated by school and needed to move on.

Although reluctant to leave my friends, I cleared out my locker, changed my name, brought a pair of double-sole brothel creepers, and went straight to college instead of sixth-form.

We make few decisions which, in hindsight, we can see were perfect. That was one of them. I loved college

 I adored college, in part because it was so different to school. 

School is perhaps the most structured, orderly part of our lives. It’s also a time when we get to feel very secure, even if we don’t recognize that until it’s gone. 

When I get nostalgic about the time, that’s what I miss. Starting college, I floundered a little. Compared to school, it was chaotic. Or rather, relaxed.

We didn’t wear a uniform. We called teachers by their first names. We could take more than one creative subject at a time. We had a lot of independent study time. Our teachers treated us like adults, not incompetent kids. People seemed to accept each other at face value.

But there was also no sense that we were expected to become a very particular type of person. The college seemed to want us to be happy and fulfilled, with the expectation that would lead obliquely to good work. I guess I hadn’t noticed that I’d internalized the list of Ideal Student Attributes we were given each year at school.

It was out in a forest, so there were ponies, donkeys and long-horn cattle grazing around the buildings. I spent my breaks watching them snuffle at the frosty grass with sad eyes and muddy flanks. The beauty of the place was calming. It inspired me. I’d take long walks across the frosted fields, catching glimpses of speckled deer, snub-nosed rabbits, wild pigs, perhaps a foal once in a while. Dressed in a floor length russet faux-fur coat, I’d lean back to gaze at the sky and feel the beauty of the landscape sinking into me.

I loved every part of it. The cafeteria where students played elaborate board games on the top floor, and someone once found a wad of chewed gum in the bottom of a coffee they’d just bought. The long corridors I stomped along in heavy black boots. The essays and reading material I devoured. Classes that covered material I still use in my work on a daily basis, not the bullshit school fed us.

***

Now

So, sometimes I do miss school for how it felt, not what it was. I miss the structured procession of time. The capacity to be the best at something. The cossetted inability to recognize the future would be different. Everything was a dramatic, life or death big deal. Every emotion felt with blistering intensity.

When I bump into people I knew then, it always hits me that we all had far more in common than we realised. Trapped within our own anxious awkwardness, we all saw ourselves as irredeemably weird creatures dealing with unique, unsolvable problems. But we were all the same at heart. 

At the time, I saw myself as cowed by the weight of the world, constrained by the limits of formal education, testily awaiting my entry into the real world. In truth, I was hungering for something I hadn’t yet experienced: freedom. I pictured my post-school life as being my school life, minus the constraints. One long summer holiday.

But it’s hard to predict what you’ll value in the future. Sometimes that proves to be something you once took for granted.

P.S. Yes, I live in the UK but I frequently use American English if it conveys a point better.

nostalgia