After struggling for several years, my old school is finally buckling under financial pressure and amalgamating with another one. The ever-rising cost of living means fewer and fewer families can afford the tuition that’s necessary to keep such a school afloat. One of the last of dying breed — an all-girls day school — it was housed in a former stately home that for centuries has overlooked the town I grew up in.
Next year, the verdant grounds with their wrought iron gates and box gardens, will become home not to girls in green dresses, but to construction and new buildings. As a listed building, the facade of main house must stay, a memento mori of days gone by.
But the attendant buildings, the old court yard and, my favourite spot, the former stables that housed our morning assemblies, all of these will be transformed into that ubiquitous modern cash cow: luxury apartments.
Before the winds of change sweep through those dusty corridors, the school held an open afternoon for former pupils to visit, to reconnect with their classmates, and to revisit the places of memory.
It’s been more than twenty years since I last set foot inside those imposing gates, yet the network of hallways and anterooms, classrooms and closets all came flooding back. My friend and I had no trouble finding our first classroom, where we learned to conjugate Latin verbs, or the English room where a now long-since retired teacher introduced us to the beauty and pain of Wordsworth.
Of course some things had changed: there was a library where I remembered the art rooms, a new art wing having been built in intervening years. Gone were the chalk boards where we’d doodled and played hangman during rainy lunchtimes.
But for the most part, the grand old lady remained the same: the warren of hallways with their magnolia paint and furniture polish smell all familiar; the stairs and railings worn smooth from countless years of girls’ hands and feet.
Then there were the attendees: “old girls” as we are now known, ranging in age from early twenties to late sixties and beyond. We gathered in the rooms showcasing the photos of our years in attendance, glancing furtively at each other’s time-altered faces, trying to recall names. Some were seemingly unchanged, the same laugh and smile cutting through the years. Others were cloaked by maturity, grown adults challenging onlookers to discern the former child beneath. We compared careers and children, partners and parents. If there was an edge of competition, it was largely restricted to whose small children were currently behaving the most like our former selves, karma being slow but always thorough.
I was pleasantly surprised to see two of my favorite former teachers still looking much the same as they had when I had seen them last. Our history teacher addressed my friend and I same with same authoritative intonations and soul-searing regard as she had when we were still teenagers in ill-fitting acrylic jumpers and baggy bottle-green wool tights.
Our bubbly, bright-eyed classics teacher chatted amiably as we inquired after her retirement, her now-grown children, the years since we were her pupils seeming to melt away.
As we said our good-byes and lovely-to-see-yous, I realized how great a debt of gratitude I owed to these remarkable teachers, and to the place where they taught. Their lessons went far beyond the stuff of primers: they instilled in us the assured sense that each of us were intelligent and creative, that our ideas, insights and contributions mattered. In an age when girls and women are routinely reduced to the symmetry of their faces, or to the proportions of their bodies, to be valued for our aptitudes and abilities was, and remains a remarkable feat.
*with apologies to Steely Dan.