June 28th, 2002 was a sunny Friday in East Belfast, and it was the last day I wore my school uniform. It was speech day, an annual event which saw boys collect their prizes for their hard work over the year, where some celebrated old boy would come back and give a golly-gosh speech promoting questionable personal qualities, and where the headmaster would gush about the school’s achievements over the year (conveniently omitting less positive things). I won a prize for something, probably Maths or French (but definitely not Chemistry, no).
I didn’t really come close to shedding any tears when I went home and removed my uniform for the final time. An era was over, yes, but my final year at school was not pleasant, much of which was my own doing (nobody was to blame for two months of insomnia though). The result was that a very angry, resentful young man was parachuted into Edinburgh the following September for the purposes of study with a massive chip on his shoulder, and it showed. But maybe he was wrong.
I’ve done a lot of growing up since then and have accepted that bygones should be bygones. I’m actually quite proud of what a few of the guys I went to school with have achieved in this last decade: Alex Woods rowed in this year’s boat race (albeit unsuccessfully, and with a health scare to boot); Neil McComb has done quite well as a second row and appeared for Ulster on a few occasions; John Andress, who had been a pretty nifty scrum half, is now a prop in the English Premiership; Matthew Acheson, the head boy, got an organ scholarship at Oxford; Ally Lamont helped found a successful hockey club in Glasgow; Chris Walker is a music mogul in New York; and many of the guys are successful lawyers, vets, linguists, and doctors. Great guys all.
Reflecting on my own time at school, my personal highlights were finishing 92nd out of 93 in the 3rd year cross country race (a result of which I am still proud; I’m sure Andrew Given still regrets stopping off for a smoke to this day), qualifying for the sports day javelin final in Upper 6th with a throw of a mighty 6 inches, and scoring a whopping two tries in a less-than-dazzling career as a prop forward for the U14 C XV (all the more impressive given that I did not actually know the rules of rugby at the time), legendary teachers such as Mr Knox (French), Mr Cathcart, Mr Caves, Miss Dunn/Mrs McLeod (all maths), Mr Taylor (legendary not for being a decent Physics teacher, but for being the weekend UTV newsreader), Mr McDowell (Chemistry) and Mr McKee (Physics).
By all accounts, the place has changed a great deal since then. The prep school has gone, many of the teachers I listed above have retired, “prayers” is now called “assembly”, fire regulations mean that the whole school can’t gather for the remembrance service, and they don’t teach Latin any more (I do genuinely think this is a shame, but that’s a discussion for another time). Such things are inevitable though, and you can’t expect everything to stay the same.
But you know what? It was great. Yeah it wasn’t fun all the time, but it was great, and I wouldn’t change it now. Well, maybe I’d bother learning the rules of rugby…