'Old School Tie' winner announced! Guest judge Anna Peters helps us to avoid a tie by placing the entries
15th July 2015
No doubt about it, something about an old school tie stirs the mind. Whether memories of a sunlit, carefree youth or a difficult struggle with disaffection and pimples are evoked, school is an (almost) universal shared experience. Here we found a place in the social pecking order, figured out how good we were at passing exams, and slowly grew into the body of the adult we would become. Then we left.
Some of this week’s entries show how hard it can be to throw off the influence of our schooldays, even 30 years afterwards. In the words of entry 1027:
What ties me to those school days?
What horrors hold on still, flying
Out through time and space
To swaddle me.
For many of us our old school ties (like old school reunions) provoke a lot of insecurity and anxiety about what we have achieved and how far we have come. We attend reunions out of curiosity or under pressure from curious friends. What will everyone look like after all these years, we wonder. How do I compare to everyone else?
Memories and emotions we had kept locked away for years are released by the sounds of walking through old buildings, smelling lunch cooking in the dinner hall, or seeing old school photographs lined up on the wall. Some of these memories are happy, but many are troubling, recalling the awkwardness of growing up and making mistakes along the way.
Almost every entry this week is a story of dealing with the difficult legacy of adolescence, whether that was a disappointing first love in entry 1025, the wasted potential of entry 1023, the traumatic effects of bullying in entries 1027 and 1026, the formative friendships in entries 1019 and 1015 or the abuse suffered from teachers in entry 1014.
Going back to school, or drawing on these memories, is often tinged with sadness and regret. But there were some notable exceptions - entry 1015 is a more playful entry, where a group of school friends meet for coffee with their small children and reflect on their differing experiences of school. While not all the women’s memories are happy, Nikki’s associations with her school tie are kinky and fun.
Similarly, entry 1018 is a beautifully told story where the protagonist, a retired man called Henry, is shaken from his lacklustre life by the sight of some schoolgirls in rather thin summer dresses with whom he strikes up an innocent camaraderie over their shared love of dogs. The encounter prompts him to escape his domestic torpor and become a community volunteer.
The first of my featured entries is entry 1021, which warmly subverts a lot of the clichés of school reunions. The former Head Boy, despite his Oxford degree and shiny MG, is a kind and thoughtful friend to the protagonist, a man he has not seen in 35 years. The lack of envy or bitterness in the character Paul is interesting, and I would like to know more about his disability, and whether in fact he is free to consummate his teenage crush on Nuala. Does Paul welcome her attention? Is there an unexplored darkness in that mention of Father “Butch” McMorrow and his ferula? I’d like to read more.
The second featured entry, 1023, captured my imagination in part for its turn of phrase: ‘Much can hang by a thread, one man's self-esteem or another man's life’ is a brilliant opening. While the first couple of paragraphs could reduce the number of rhetorical questions and show more of the man’s glittering youth, this story of hubris really gets going with the entry of the motorbike: ‘He told himself that he had only to ride the bike to an adventure to give birth, finally, to the great work he knew was within him.’ While Roger is an unlovely man, his grotesque ego is painted lovingly by the author. A really fun read, which with a little pruning and work on syntax could transform into a roistering good crime story.
This week’s winner packed many aspects of good writing into a tantalising short story. In entry 1016 the three main characters, David, George and Emma are all well-drawn and delicately described, with a narrative thread that unravels into a series of mysteries (lacunae) that grow deeper with each passing paragraph. Dialogue is crisp and internal narration is pleasantly cynical. And yet there is room for some really lovely description: ‘When she thought of her time there a series of doors swung shut in her mind. Trapdoors with her always on the wrong side.’ I really liked the subtlety of the writing. This is story that improves upon re-reading, and the warmth of its ending belies the darkness of its beginning. A well-plotted tale with a refreshing twist.
Well done to everyone who entered, it was a pleasure to read your work.
About the guest judge
Anna Peters is a freelance writer and former English teacher who splits her time between commercial B2B copywriting and creative writing including a crime novel set in Belfast, poetry and short stories. She currently lives in northern Germany with her husband Uli and their cat Perdita. Her commercial writing website is annapeters.net