Tuesday 30 May 2017

School reunion

Nothing quite prepares you for a journey into your own past. Last weekend I caught the 08:42 train to Cheltenham and travelled back in time to an all-girls boarding school that was my home from the age of 11 to 18. It was my first visit back in 25 years - a great deal had changed and yet so much remained the same.

Shauna and I outside our old boarding house in 2017...
After leaving school in 1992, I spent most of my early twenties feeling a vague sense of emancipation, having escaped the rules and regulations of institutional life. Ever since, I have cast my school days in a slightly negative light, partly to entertain new friends but also because boarding took its emotional toll. So when a school reunion was mooted earlier this year, my eagerness to go back took me by surprise. 

As the green fields of Gloucestershire rushed past the train window, however, I felt a familiar knot of anxiety in my stomach. Not quite the churning homesickness we experienced during our early days at school, but something tinged with that adolescent dread of being judged. One-quarter of a century on, what did I have to show for myself? What had I learnt?

The days leading up to this epic journey had been busy. Not only faced with the challenge of losing half a stone in a mere five days, I was in daily contact with my closest friend, Shauna, to plan our outfits. Such dilemmas proved almost financially ruinous as I shelled out for new shoes, a jumper, tights and an emergency leg-wax... not to mention the purchase of a cashmere wrap in rainy Cheltenham after I forgot my coat.

... And back in 1990
Walking the short distance from the hotel to the school's main entrance, my lingering sense of unease gave way to nostalgia. Memories emerged from the gloom: Shauna and I slipping out to the shops in our snot-green uniform to load up on Boost bars, all my friends cheering hysterically at house contests, conferences in the laundry cupboard to discuss our sketchy knowledge of sex and endless rounds of toast in the boarding house after school. 

But, above all, I got a faint echo of how it felt to be 18 again - that dizzy sense of hope and expectation that gilds our teenage years as adulthood looms like a mirage, shimmering with possibility. With a jolt, I realised most of those opportunities now lay behind me: the freedoms of university, a career in London, romance, marriage and finally children of my own. 

Made in Cheltenham

On reaching school, I got caught up in a perfumed bubble of excitement as I kissed and hugged my way back into the classrooms of my childhood. Seeing all these schoolgirls-turned-women provided a fascinating insight into the ageing process. Some of us had changed not a jot, while others were almost unrecognisable.

"Oh my God, Shauna, you still look so young," someone would gasp, before turning to me and saying: "Oh, hi Emma, I hear you're writing books?" Still, if nothing else, 25 years had taught me how to tame the frizzy mess I used to call my hair. There was, I realised, a lot to be positive about.

In a flash, my heart beating a little fast, it struck me how privileged I was to receive this education. It was here that my love of literature took root and flourished. Boarding school may have hurt at times, but it also taught me resilience and self-belief. Best of all, it introduced me to girls, like Shauna, with whom I would share so much of my adult life. Going back last weekend was a reminder that a large part of me was formed during those giddy, restrictive years in Cheltenham.

As I was writing this post, I was overly conscious of all the young women who had their futures stolen in Manchester last week by a horrific act of violence. It is heartbreaking to think they will never grasp the opportunities that were once promised them.

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