A few weeks ago I was contacted on Facebook by an old friend from my sixth form drama days. He was gathering ex-students for a reunion and would I like to come?
Errr, no, not really.
I have a terrible memory for faces and names. I’d embarrass myself not knowing anyone. Most people wouldn’t know me either as I was one of the first to study at the newly formed Portsmouth Sixth College – I’d cross over with very few of the year groups. Besides, I’d kept in touch with everyone I wanted to.
What a liar. I definitely hadn’t kept in touch with ANYONE I wanted to and most especially, somewhere along the river of life, two very important people had drifted off. My first love and the teacher who changed my life. I gave myself a kick.
Fear is never a good enough reason to avoid something. Unless it’s putting your head in the path of an oncoming truck, then it’s probably best to go with your instincts.
‘Is Russell going?’ I asked – a loaded question in so many ways. Russell, my first true love. Who had left me for Mark, the boy now organising the reunion. Let’s face it, ours was a doomed relationship if ever there was one – he was a gay male and I was a girl. The desperate, knee hugging agony I’d endured when we split has fed into every break-up scene I’ve written since. It pained me that Russell and I were no longer in touch – we’d somehow remained friends and I couldn’t understand why he stopped returning my calls soon after we’d left college.
‘Ahh,’ Mark said, ‘You don’t know about Russell.’
My heart dropped to my feet.
I think I last saw Russell in 1988 – he was working as a carer for a girl with access problems at Manchester Uni and I’d gone to stay with him. We’d had fun. Awkwardly shared his single bed for the lack of anywhere else to sleep but you know, it was fine, we were friends. And then he was gone. Didn’t reply to letters, didn’t answer the phone. I could have tracked him down at his Mum’s but I didn’t. If he couldn’t be bothered, then why should I? Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Russell had contracted HIV. In those days there were no anti-retroviral drugs, no understanding of viral load counts. HIV developed into AIDS and AIDS was a killer laced with tabloid induced fear and shame. The beautiful, funny, stubborn, complex young man who, for a short while, had been everything to me, had died and I didn’t even know.
So no, Russell wasn’t going to be at the reunion, but someone else was.
James P. McCarthy. The teacher who changed my life.
It’s not a myth, some teachers really do that. Jim came along when I was half way through my A-levels. I was full of smug satisfaction with my work, no clue that I was heading for failure. Until he chuckled ( I didn’t say he was tactful) and said,
‘But this is rubbish, you can’t write an essay, has no one ever shown you how?’
In the space of a year, Jim dragged me through both my English and my Theatre Studies A level – we’ll not mention the maths, he was never going to be much help with that one. As the end of the year approached, he asked me what universities I was applying to.
I think I laughed.
Kids like me didn’t go to university.
‘But’, he said, gripping my arm, ‘You must.’
And I knew I must.
So I applied and four out of five turned me down in one day. I ran about 4 miles to Jim’s house in the rain, across a dark graveyard, where I twisted my ankle and had to climb over a wall to get out the other side. I sat wetly in his kitchen, sobbing and eating toast until I felt better.
I was eventually offered a place at Birmingham poly but, thanks to Jim, my grades were better than I’d hoped. After a bit of dithering, and a lot of nudging from him, I went to Bangor University. Those years were the foundation for pretty much everything I’ve ever done. Who knows if I’d even be writing now if it weren’t for him?
He gave me confidence and skills and ambition.
And I discovered something at the reunion. I wasn’t the only one. The room was full of us. Teachers, theatre practitioners, lecturers, charity workers, singers ( every Thursday John Dilloway, I’ll be checking) – warm, wonderful people with one man in common. A man that, after nearly thirty years, remembered every single one of us.
Good teachers are the foundation of good society.
James P Mccarthy you’re the best.