Reunion of Wanstead County High, United Kingdom

It took nearly fifty years, but I can honestly say at last that I learned something really important from my time at WHS.

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Accepting the invitation to attend the reunion of the 1951 intake was itself a major decision. It entailed travelling from Calgary in Western Canada to take part in an event that combines two of my least favourite things – reunions of any kind and bringing up memories of schooldays. And yet the invitation was irresistible. First of all, I was intrigued that anyone would go to the bother of seeking me out to invite me; after all, I had not spoken with anyone from my old school since 1956. Secondly, I was beset with nostalgia and started to remember the friends I had made and the adolescent laughter we had shared. I rushed to retrieve the old school photo, circa 1952 and pored over it, eagerly identifying some of my fellow students, scratching my head over others whom I recognized but could not name. Thirdly, I found myself wondering. What would they be like now? What, if anything, would we have in common? And another question vaguely rattled around my mind that I could not quite work out. It became clearer later, only after the event. It would be the biggest lesson of my time at Wanstead.

The last thirty-five years of my professional life has taken me into the realms of understanding human emotion and behaviour. During that time, I have taken the opportunity to learn a great deal about myself. This was an accident at first, since I had assumed that there was not much to learn in that respect. After all, if I already knew everything at sixteen, how would I not know it at twenty-nine? In the process of involving myself in courses covering youth and community development, group dynamics, counselling and such fascinating subjects, I discovered the most fascinating subject of all. Me! This was not taught in school. In fact, I think I learned in school to be as unnoticeable as possible and that it was better to be a complete nonentity unless you happened to excel at sports.

For the last twenty-five years I have continued this path of self-development and have extended it to assisting people to discover more about themselves, and more to the point, to become who they really are.

Until I attended the OH reunion in May 2004, I could not have said with certainty that all this soul-searching and personal work has had any discernable effect. It is certainly something that I have a hard time talking about, since it appears to be so nebulous and lacking in any concrete outcomes. “What,” people would ask me “do you do for a real living?”

Then, suddenly, one afternoon in May I was in the midst of fifty or so men and women who seemed to have leapt out of that old school photograph. Only the faces and bodies were different, some more so than others. Inside each person I spoke with, I discovered the same characteristics and personalities emerging. It was as though the conversation we might have had fifty years ago was still going on. With very few notable exceptions, all that had happened to people was that they had got older and gathered other experiences. It was like being in that longitudinal TV study of lives every seven years – except that I’d missed out six of the series.

I got to thinking. Was this true about me too? Why would it not be the same? Sure enough, I had found myself reminiscing about the same kind of experiences that others described and saw that I responded in much the way that others might have expected of me. But, and here’s the clincher, at least four people said to me, after we had exchanged brief life stories, “I feel envious, you have done what you wanted with your life.”

That’s when I learned something. That’s when I knew that all the inner exploration that I had done had really left its mark, and when I knew that we could all have had the same opportunity to live the lives we wanted to live if only we had all learned the same things. School was no place to teach us who we were and how we could harness our potential abilities. If anything, it probably had a negative influence on many of us, including me. It was a chance circumstance that got me involved in learning about myself. Nothing as precious as that should be left to chance.

I left the reunion with a kaleidoscope of feelings. At the forefront was the delight at seeing so many people with whom I had spent some of the most formative time of my life, and who were, I now realise, so important to me. Behind that was the recognition that I had ignored the value of the friendships that I had experienced during that time and had done so because most of the other parts of WHS were so negative for me. And underneath it all was the unique opportunity for me to see my life with a different perspective, across all those years.

You might say that the real reunion was the one I had with myself. I hope that is true of everyone there. Thank you Wanstead County High for at last teaching me the greatest lesson of all, that the choices we each make at any time have such a significant effect on the rest of our lives.