Articles: School Reunion

FROM the Evening Herald

School Bonds Can Never Be Broken

Denise Deegan thought a school reunion could be fun – if she actually recognised anyone after 21 years…

When the invite to my 21st school reunion arrived, my first reaction was panic. “Am I really that old? Am I forty?” A quick calculation followed. “No, only thirty-seven. Phew! Forty is miles away.” I slipped back into denial.

That I didn’t bin the invite was down to one line: “Those of you who are blissfully happy with your lives can buy the rest of us a drink”.

“Still”, I thought, flinging it in the drawer I tuck everything I don’t want to deal with, “Why trek back down to Cork? I’m a busy woman. Who’d turn up, anyway? What would we have to say to each other after 21 years?” Worst of all, would I remember anybody?

The invite would have stayed there and the date slipped by, had it not been for another invite. A few former classmates living in Dublin were meeting up for a meal. Would I join them? This was easier to commit to. And it was a litmus test.

I recognised one out of five and that was only because I was expecting to see her and she hadn’t changed much. The others I had to look at for a whole minute before familiar features began to emerge from now unfamiliar faces. Hair made a huge difference. One girl had gone tres glam, leaving the rest of us in awe. But as the evening advanced, it became clear that she, like us, was the same person she’d always been.

The 21-year gap evaporated. We laughed at memories that might otherwise have been lost forever. We had, we realised, shared so much (far beyond seven-hours-a-day, five-days-a-week for five years).

We had grown up together. How had we gone on to never see each other again? And not even give it a thought. Going home that night, I knew I would be going to the reunion.

A few of us met in a pub beforehand. The screams as we recognised each other had the regulars tut-tutting about not being able to hear the match. We didn’t care. Some bright spark had brought along copies of our last group photo. I looked at it and cringed. Was fuzzy hair really a fashion back then? God, how innocent I looked. How boring.

As more and more people arrived I realised how little I’d remembered. I kept cross referencing the women in front of me with the girls in the photo and asking “What’s your name again?”

Those I recalled easiest had been the funny ones. Some were “the image of themselves”, others had changed beyond recognition.

Roughly 40 out of 90 turned up, three of whom had returned from the US for the event. The thing that struck me was how down-to-earth every one was. But then that shouldn’t have been a surprise. Ours was not a pretentious school. Public not private – but good. It was run by nuns, only two of which remain.

It had not produced blowy people who felt superior because of the school they attended. And yet there was a strong camaraderie between us.

As the night went on we caught up on each other’s lives. Many had had difficult times. Some had become single mums soon after leaving school. Others struggled with lesbianism. More had had broken relationships, marriages.

The majority had married and were busy raising families. No one had died. Something I believe in greatly was reinforced – women have such incredible strength.

A word I hadn’t used since school came rushing back to describe my former classmates – “sound”. That included those I’d never hung out with and might even have been a little afraid of. That night I realised that these had not been people to fear but to admire – unafraid as they were to let their personalities shine through in their haircuts and adaptation of uniform.

Which brings me to what people thought of me. In a word, quiet.

It was probably true. I had had one good friend. We were joined at the hip. And while we never stopped talking to each other, obviously we didn’t mix enough. She wasn’t at the reunion and I made up for all that non-mingling.

The last stragglers left at 2am. We hugged and swapped contact details. Someone joked that we should meet again in ten years when we’re heading for fifty. We were too shocked to laugh.

That was Saturday. On Monday, I was signing copies of my new novel in Cork. I nearly cried when in trooped a gang of my newest buddies to provide their support. It was a special moment. And to think that I had almost missed out on it completely.

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