J and I met in our teens. We enrolled as student teachers together, we lived just across the corridor in hall, we learned the realities of teaching kids in tough London schools, we partied, we got drunk and we hitchhiked around the country at dead of night. One of us owned the Bookends album. We’d listen to this track and feel uncomfortable at the lyrics – How terribly strange to be seventy…
We passed our exams and got our first teaching posts. We shared a flat for a while, then I left to get married and move somewhere rural. She was my bridesmaid. I had children; she didn’t. We met up a few times, then just exchanged Christmas and birthday cards and hastily scribbled once-a-year notes about how that year had been. Hers would tell of exotic holidays on far-flung islands; mine would tell of family budget ones in Devon.
This year, as I wrote her birthday card, I added a note to say I was back in the East for a while. We were both retired now, and living not too far apart, after all, so might we meet up?
What a crazy idea. We’d lived a lifetime apart, doing different things. College was a distant memory. Would we even recognise each other now?
Yesterday, we met.
Yes, we did recognise each other. It took a moment to work our way past the portly bodies, the white hair, the sensible shoes and wrinkles, to spot the familiar old friend who shone from behind all that. Thirty years, we worked out, since we’d last met. The thirty years of experiences, pains and joys we had gained from life flowed between us.
Not quite seventy, but only a very few years off. So were we the old people Paul Simon had imagined in his lyrics? Perhaps – to any twenty-somethings passing by, that was how we’d look. Those lyrics, though, are a young person’s idea of old age.
We did share a park bench for a while, but not quietly. We talked of what we’d done, children we’d taught, how we railed against the education system with its focus on exams and fact-learning, fought for the rights of the kids and parents, struggled to open the young minds and encourage free-thinking and creativity. We spoke of how we’d shared our ideas and experience, mentored young teachers. We spoke sadly of how the government-controlled education system had finally driven us out, as the job we’d loved and devoted our lives to was subsumed by paper-pushing and statistics. We’d both taken early retirement and headed off to educate in different, freer ways. And now, we decided, was a time for pride and reflection, a time for relaxation without clock-watching, but not – oh so definitely not – a time to stop learning and wondering, thinking and discovering.