They say there’s nothing more cruel than schoolboys. They’re wrong. Far worse are those you were at school with — even after thirty years! My class of ’71 at Doon had a re-union this weekend and I met up with several old friends I haven’t seen for decades. But if anyone thought age, experience and wisdom would have curbed our penchant for laughter at someone else’s expense — what I call digging it in — they couldn’t have been more surprised.
“KT, just look at you!” was how I was greeted when I walked into the gathering. I soon discovered that the old school sobriquet was not used out of affection so much as to emphasise the comment that was to follow. “If your teeth are as white as your hair you could advertise Colgate!”
Less obvious, though no less pointed, was the second greeting with which I was accosted a short while later. This time, however, I required the full recall of my literary memory to understand!
“Hey!” said a familiar voice not heard since the early 1970s. I swivelled in its direction to find a group beckoning me. They were clearly enjoying themselves. “Do you think you’re Mary’s little lamb?”
“What?” I spluttered, perplexed by the simile.
“Well, its fleece was white as snow and so is yours!”
Fortunately they tired of my hair fairly quickly. Unfortunately that created the opening for jokes about my loquacity. To be honest, I don’t think of myself as garrulous. But others do. Worse, my old school friends have also held firmly to the belief that I can’t keep a secret. “Telephone, telegram, tell Thapar” was the saying when we were fifteen. As far as this lot is concerned, it holds good even today.
After a series of comments such as ‘who thought Tota would join the Navy!’ and ‘yaar, I can’t believe monkey’s become such a hot shot’, attention turned to me. I knew I was in for another ribbing.
“KT, you chose the right profession.”
“Why?” I foolishly asked, falling into an obvious trap.
“Because you never let anyone talk in school. Now, as an anchor, you can keep on interrupting and claim you’re doing your job!”
“In fact, why do you bother to have guests?” someone else butted in. He was smiling but his tone was pure stiletto. “The poor chaps don’t get a word in edgeways. Why don’t you call it ‘interview with self’? You know you’d love that.”
To be honest I would have been disappointed — actually upset — if our conversations hadn’t started this way. Schoolboy affection is always disguised behind barbs and innuendo. It’s less obvious but far sturdier than what you later encounter. In fact, I would add that you can always rely on someone whose leg you can pull. But can you equally trust a man you are formal with? Humour dissolves more than differences — it eliminates reserve, eradicates pomposity and obliterates the need for silly white lies.
I’m not sure if day school students can meet up after three decades with similar camaraderie, but I suspect not. On the other hand the gruelling experience of a boarding school — and, of course, our capacity to romanticise memories, forgetting the dreadful whilst exaggerating the comic and peculiar — ensures that a friendship is never forgotten. Whilst you may not meet for years — even decades — and that was true of many of the class of ’71 — when you do you can strike a chord instantaneously. And even if the rekindled old flame may start to flicker and fade after a bit, it will certainly shine brightly for the duration of a re-union.
Wellington was only slightly incorrect when he claimed that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. I suspect the roots of that victory more accurately stretch back to the pranks played in the dormitories, the punishments inflicted by prefects and the homework hastily completed with a little help from the class egghead minutes before submission. Such incidents may or may not have put iron in the Duke but, for the rest of us, they’ve promoted self reliance, self confidence and an ability to see the funny side of any predicament. What’s more, they’ve forged bonds that have survived the test of time.
So even if school days are not the best in your life — and, actually, it would be rather sad if they were — the boarding school experience is undoubtedly special. But you have to know it to truly understand why.