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 maudlin. 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.