Romy and Michele and Duncan’s School Reunion
Are there four syllables in the English language to strike fear into the hearts of men and women across Australia than – high school reunion. Hell, that’s five syllables. There you go – I was no good at either English or maths. And I just know everyone I went to school with knows it.
Panic grips you in the days before the reunion. Just what the hell have I been doing with my life? How can I spin it so I appear successful/rich/happy? I call this the Romy and Michele Method (after the movie Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion starring Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow who decide to make up a life for themselves at their reunion as the inventors of Post-it Notes.
Or maybe the high school reunion is a perfect chance for a cheap group therapy session and calls for four hours of brutal honesty. Why pay a shrink several thousand dollars when for fifty bucks you can, over ten beers and some bad finger food, cut to the chase, strip back your life to its foundations and expose just what you have become and who you really are. And all this with the people who deep down know you the best – your old school friends (and enemies).
When I arrive I’m sure I have never laid eyes on half of the men here. Some are fat, some bald but with fashionably shaved heads, some bald but trying to disguise it, some just, well, just frighteningly old.
There’s a slick guy who’s turned up like a Gold Coast property developer in a black Maserati perving on the waitresses. Another in boardshorts and sneakers who’s just come from an early evening surf. The cancer research specialists. The conservative accountants and lawyers. The drug dealer. The loaded merchant banker. The down and out NIDA graduate. The quiet family man who is now living with a 23 year old boyfriend. And the most thuggish mediocre boy at school who is now an overweight Senior Counsel at the bar.
And then there was me, the inventor of Post-it Notes. What sort of school would produce such a diverse group?
For my sins, my parents sent me to a prestigious boys’ private school – Sydney Grammar. Founded in 1854, it’s a school with its roots firmly in the liberal classical traditions of 19th Century England and is one of Sydney’s GPS - Greater Public – not private – Schools. Each capital city will have a school just like it. Melbourne Grammar, Brisbane Grammar, St Peter’s College in Adelaide, Christ Church Grammar School in Perth.
It’s a school that prides itself on academic achievement and its old boys are known for a certain laconic aristocratic air if not an arrogant self-regard (did I mention Malcolm Turnbull is an old boy?) which is hopefully tempered by a self-deprecating wit.
Having said all that, there’d be plenty of people who would think Grammar is a school for rich stuck-up pricks.
Maybe the truth lies somewhere in between.
But for everyone who sees us as pathetic elitists, here are two facts to consider. One, Sydney Grammar has produced more Australian Test cricketers than any other school. And two, 1740 old boys volunteered for the First World War, of which 299 died. You’ll find a similar story in World War Two.
The older I get, the more stupid shallow people I meet, in government, in the media, in bureaucracy (mostly in positions of great power) the more I think that maybe the ideas of my classical education that are so flippantly derided as being old-fashioned today are not quite so contemptible.
George Orwell, who was an old boy of Eton said just before he died that the school had one great virtue, “and that is a tolerant and civilised atmosphere which gives each boy a chance of developing a fair individuality.”
My reunion showed me that I went to a similar school where you were not designed to emerge as a nicely wrapped uniform product but rather a rough-around-the-edges young man on the way to being a decent man in full.
And it also made something very clear to me about education. We shouldn’t be sending our kids to school to fill them up with facts and figures, French verbs and Romantic poets but rather to teach them to think critically, independently for themselves.
As W.B Yeats once said: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
Let that fire burn, in every school across Australia.
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