Friday, May 7, 2021

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a flying;
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying
 Robert Herrick

There's a famous scene in the film Dead Poet's Society in which the inspirational John Keating (played by Robin Williams) tells his pupils to look closely at the photographs of old boys on the walls. His instruction follows a reading of the poem above, lamenting the brevity of life, and urging us to seize the day.  Look at those faces, says Keating,  they're just like you...  the same haircuts, same hormones...  full of hope...

Yesterday, I dug out my own alumni picture: the sixth form class of '79 at Whitley Bay High School. I'm on the back row, fourth from the left, arms folded and tie askew. Of the 120 or so faces I could perhaps name 30 and no doubt more if prompted. My girlfriend and later wife is to the right of the middle row; my best man (twice now) has his face obscured.

Other than Rebecca and Ken, I have no contact with any of the others. I learned yesterday that there is to be a reunion in September; it will be 49 years since we started high school together. Some of those pictured were my friends in primary too; one was my desk mate on the very first day. How strange that we might meet again?

Here in Wales, Jane and her family have closer connections to the community; it helps perhaps that her father was a headmaster. But more than that, by staying relatively local the interweaving of lives is more traceable; the network of paths less easily lost. Thirty years ago I moved 300 miles south and west, severing the threads if not quite the ties to my past.

In that experience, I won't be alone. At least half of those facing the camera went on to university; few will have returned to the town we grew up in. Opportunities and progress are more dispersed than in the time of our parents, and of theirs before them...  In a sense, all our histories are diasporas of a sort.

And it's this thought which fascinates me most about the photograph. 

If I think of the hopes and talents that are captured in its pixels, the possibilities are infinite. What roads have we all travelled—what roots are laid down?  Did our futures play out as predicted by our teachers—or as we ourselves had planned?  Somehow I doubt it.  And if we were to stand together again today, how many of us would there be—surely some will have been lost? 

But none of this is a lament. For life is good, and we cannot undo the choices we make, or for that matter our fates. Did we go on to have extraordinary lives? In many respects—and certainly, in historical terms—we will all of us have lived remarkably. That we are now approaching our sixties is itself an astonishing thought. So too, how swiftly we've travelled, how fragile the footprints we leave. 

I was thinking all this as we walked in the woodland near our home yesterday evening. Jane asked if I was with her at all; her forbearance of my inner world as patient as ever. On the rise of the hill, we sat listening to birdsong, and all around us were countless seeds floating in the air. Some were falling nearby, others being carried on the breeze... what plants will they sow I wondered; where and when will they flower?

And what of my sons; two of them older now than I was in the picture? As parents, we might wish for our offspring to spread like tendrils, but there’s a reason why seeds disperse in wind or water. Few trees grow tall in the shadow of others; it's their scattering afar that allows them to flourish. They must do so also when the time is right.

Herrick's poem is often twinned with Shakespeare's warning that Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May / And summers lease hath all too short a date...  In the famous film scene, Keating tells his pupils not to wait for chance or circumstance. The old boys in the pictures, he says, are now fertilising daffodils—we are all of us, 'food for worms'. 

That's true, but not quite yet. 

The faces of my classmates were full of promise. I hope our reunion is as much a celebration of life still to live, as that which has passed. After all, there's much to be said for an Indian summer.


  1. Reunions for me are over. At 88 I would hardly remember anyone. I went to Lincoln Girls' High School but in the late forties/early fifties. Very few of us left now - I kept in touch with a few but they have died in the last couple of years. Tempus fugit.

  2. I have no old photos to jog my memories of my schooldays, which is probably just as well as a lot of my memories involve bullying of one kind or another. I most definitely would not enjoy a reunion with those people.

  3. I woke this morning from a dream so intense that it's going to take me all day to shake it. It was as if so many different versions of my life had come together and overlapped with people I've known and loved, some still living, some not, in a completely different version of a place I love but which, in my dream had changed so completely that it broke my heart.
    A sort of reunion in a parallel universe.
    I still feel like crying both in sorrow and also in relief that my life has taken this path, and that I could wake to the world of what I know as reality.

  4. Hari OM
    Coming across photos of earlier years really brings home the time spanned and draws the question as to what, exactly, has been achieved? Much - and yet...

    There was one school reunion organised, but I was happily a well-established Australian by that time so had valid reason for not being able to attend. I have no interest in returning to old ground. Neither the having to explain (or indeed justify) who I am now as compared to who is remembered by those others, now total strangers.

    Indeed, there is enough future left yet to develop, requiring full focus upon the now. The yesterday only leaves its mark by the lessons learned, all those days seized, and how that informs the moving forward! YAM xx

  5. I went to a very small school. I went away for some years after that. Most classmates did not (I am not trying to say this as a mean thing, or something to make myself seem is merely a statement of fact). So when I went to my reunion (I believe it was the 25th or some milestone), I was anxious to reconnect with those kids from that long ago yearbook.

    What I discovered, when I got there, was most everyone stayed in the area after graduation, and most everyone had stayed connected in the intervening years. The cliques of those highschool days were still the cliques of their middle age, and I was no less an outsider at 43 than I was at 18. I watched people visiting together easily. I ran into a couple of people who I never really knew before graduation who had also moved away. It was fun to learn about them.

    When I left, the class clown was drunk and throwing up in the parking lot while his girlfriend wept.

    I never went back to another. I still have a couple friends from those years. We've never lost touch. The others? Well. I guess that we will never be in touch.

  6. Probably saw you at Spanish City in '75.

  7. True what you say about seeds. Don't think I would to live in the same place all my life.

  8. ....."it's their scattering afar that allows them to flourish."
    Oh yes Mark, your words are so true - and beautifully expressed as always. This seems to tie in with my post today about coming to America when I was almost 19! I believe I have flourished but in all honesty there have been some rough bits along the way.
    I was only to stay a year, see the country, make some money and then go home to my boyfriend - who now lives in Prestatyn!!! Things changed - mostly for the better I guess. I can't believe I was that brave really.
    I was looking at my girls' grammar school photo recently (the entire school which was large) - I was in the first form when it was taken, and sitting in the front row. I still know a few of the girls but really am only in touch with one and see her when I go home. I would love to know what happened to all - and I feel sad realizing that all the teachers in the photos have now passed away for certain. How quickly life flies by - how fleeting our lives are.

    Thanks for your comments - and these great posts.
    Mary -

  9. One of the most alarming things about aging is realizing how quickly time really does pass. Robin Williams' words have more impact for me now than when I heard them in the cinema in 1989!

    I went to my 20th high school reunion back in 2004 and I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. It was cool to see how well everyone turned out. And now I think I'm done with reunions. (I'm friends with a lot of those people on Facebook now anyway.)

  10. I had opportunities to attend school reunions. The idea appalled me and I never went. Perhaps I was afraid but I could justify this instinctive choice in other ways.