After 40 years I am in contact with only two of my schoolfriends. By contact, I mean we actually meet face to face – until COVID, that is. For everyone else, either the bonds weren’t strong enough or I was simply too lazy or antisocial to keep things going. But having more past than future can make one twitchy, and I recently found myself reflecting on what happened to everyone and what life threw at these people, some of whom I met when I was five.
Inevitably, finding out was just a few clicks away: a Facebook group dedicated to my school’s alumni. There they all were (well, most of them), my classmates: the good, the bad and the extremely naughty; all grown-up.
Joining the dots between then and now can be a sobering exercise in existentialism. Judging by the tone of the posts, they haven’t aged at all – but the Facebook photographs suggest otherwise. We look like our parents and some of us look like our grandparents. Especially me. Gravity takes its toll and the weight of years has led to dodgy knees and bald heads – or is that just me again?
Not everyone in my year has joined the group and most of those who have, dip in and out. Interestingly, those with whom I have kept in touch don’t appear in the group either. I’m not sure what that says but I think it says something. Perhaps we died and no-one told us.
There are, however, a few who post comments all the time, feeding memories with an enthusiastic regularity. The irony is I remember these people as being the keenest to leave school. Perhaps it is a way of being young again; the posts a verbal avatar through which we can again be teenagers – fit and strong and fearless with an endless horizon stretching before us.
I suspect a few might prefer who they once were to who they are now – or maybe it’s vice-versa, that they see a chance to rewrite history by replacing their old self with a modern version? Time, the great leveler. Be nice now and people might forget what an awful shit you once were.
That’s a bit mean, but friends I remember being pushed to the fringes of playground society are now in cheerful discourse with those who pushed them there. That’s good and long may it continue, but I wonder if this social re-balancing would last were we all to be physically reunited for more than a day or two. It’s hard to imagine Piggy sharing rose-tinted memories with Roger and Jack on their post-apocalyptic Lord of the Flies Friends’ page. ‘Do you remember that lovely time you stole my glasses and then dropped a boulder on my head?’
Talking of Piggy, I was hoping to find some posts about me but disappointingly my name seldom crops up. I am so absent I had to check I actually went to that school. It seems I left little or no impression on anybody which is odd because I have a clear recollection of being extraordinarily popular. Too bad that’s a memory nobody else shares. Not even my friends.
However, other, darker, memories are posted. Complaints of casual racism, chronic bullying and punitive abuse by teachers. But just as casually, any attempt to discuss these traumas are closed down with comments such as ‘that was then and this is now’ and ‘it’s best to move on.’ Best for whom, one wonders? And move on to what? Voices unheard all those years ago remain unheard; the idyll is not to be broken. I am reminded that it is dangerous to be different. That is true now and it certainly was then.
And so the posts return to safer ground with questions such as ‘who was your favourite teacher’ and ‘what music did you dance to’. I liked to play air-guitar to progressive rock with my head in a bass speaker, but that’s not something I want to share with the group. Or should. We all have our murky secrets and surely one benefit of getting old is to turn the page hurriedly on embarrassing teenage foibles.
I have a platonic relationship with the past. I don’t want to forget it but I also don’t want to relive it. I would jump at the chance to be sixteen again (knees permitting), but only if I could take my current mind with me. I suppose like most people I am trying to walk up Time’s down escalator.
And being social media migrants means we should be careful about getting too carried away in an online world. We might forget this jaunt down memory lane is in reality a public and open forum. Feelings can be hurt, confidences broken, libel laws breached. Worse still, we might encourage each other to wear cheesecloth again.
One day we will all know everything about everyone. There will be no secrets and the past will sit side-by-side with the present. Only the future will remain unknown and unknowable, as COVID-19 has demonstrated. But that’s how it should be. ‘That was then and this is now’ is indisputably true, but it’s tomorrow that interests me. Especially as I hope to be in it.