New stairs and fresher toast
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A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE
Our school year in England stretched into mid-July, but the last week or so had been given over to a series of concerts, open-air theatre, art exhibits, fencing tournaments, antique bicycle demonstrations, and much decadent lounging on lawns and deck chairs.
Exams were behind us, and our inky papers had been dispatched to tweedy boffins in musty book-filled rooms somewhere frightfully intellectual like Cambridge, so all we had to do was wait out the end of the year, attend a few assemblies, sit through a bit of symphony music or hastily garbled Shakespeare, and generally not make a nuisance of ourselves.
There was a pub on our boarding school campus, open every evening, where we’d lurk on a few occasions and buy drinks for our teachers or just scowl in corners over tall pints of tepid English beer, but the revelry and the frolic that we’d been expecting in the last weeks of school never seemed to come.
On the very last night, after all the ceremonies and handshakes, tea parties and cathedral services, the school was finally silent, rather like an aging battleship after the very last cannon has fallen still. Curtains fluttered in the twilight from half-open windows; boxes and trunks were stacked in corridors or on the corners of gravel forecourts, awaiting transport to homes all over the Commonwealth; dustbins were stuffed with the things we no longer cared for or needed, from wing collars to electric kettles, pop music posters to bundles of mimeographed lesson notes; and all the commotion, the urgency, the frenzy of academia and the boisterous camaraderie had drifted away in the stifling summer air or settled as dust in the corners and between the raggedy stones of our ancient walls.
Gradually, all the things we had known that defined our lives, the routines and the traditions, the sounds and the smells, slipped into a past that was still curiously tangible but replaced by a feeling of immeasurable awe, of anticipation, and a considerable dose of fear, at what lay ahead for each of us.
Hard-sole footfalls on the tired flagstones in our fraternity houses would be our very last in those places; the creak of the stairs and lingering whiff of overdone toast would be someone else’s to know henceforth. We, the ones who had prevailed, would be going on from there to new places, new stairs and fresher toast.
Strolling through the darkening city that night with my friends, pausing at all the old haunts, I came to view my home town in ways I had not expected. We, after all, were adults now, surely no longer shackled by the rules and the orders that had been written for mere children. We were members of a fast and harried society now, responsible for things that hadn’t mattered before, required to abide by new standards that fit us as awkwardly as those uniforms had done the first time all those years before.
We must have been as leaves on a quiet platform, shortly to be tumbled in the rush, deafened by the roar of an express train barreling through, whipped into the maelstrom of sound and fury.
We had also violated our curfew by hours, and so we bade the yellowy lamplight and the sleepy streets goodnight, headed through the fiercely battered gates and ascended to our eyries, high in the shouldering gables.
I slipped off my black school tie, wrenched the starched collar from its studs for the very last time and stood in the open window, gazing at the deep purple emptiness beyond.
There was nothing to see, nothing to know of what lay ahead for me or for any of us; not in the day, the week or the years that must follow. The void was as thrilling as it was frightening, as tempting as it was repulsive, and yet it had to be faced because it was for this very time that we had been preparing for so long.
Some of your children will be finishing their schooling this week, and perhaps their excitement about the future is as mixed with dread as yours and mine may have been. Nevertheless, it is something with which they must deal on their own terms and in their own determined way.
Let us hope that we have prepared them well.