Cushing is a small, private boarding school, set in semi-Arcadian New England, a privileged enclave where pupils are given BMWs for graduation. I went there after taking my A-levels, on a travel scholarship sponsored by the English Speaking Union. Ten years on, the school seemed just as alien, almost like a film set. People rush past brandishing ice hockey sticks and school sweatshirts. A man from the Class of '74 stops and says, 'Hey] This keeps me in touch with the glory days of my life,' and runs on.
'Welcome,' says Philip A Hammond, president of the alumni association, at the Service of Commemoration in the chapel. 'It feels like coming home, doesn't it?' Surrounded by banks of candles, and the Cushing Festival Chorus, lines of former pupils bow their heads gravely. 'We've returned to spend time together, to laugh and to eat,' he continues. 'That's why we're here today.'
Well, not quite. Most private schools in the States know they've got to keep their alumni sweet: when student fees are dollars 22,000 a year plus, parents expect theatres, hockey rinks and carpeted libraries on the house. How better to tout for funds than by appealing to former pupils about the good ol' days?
This is not to say that there is anything as bare-faced as a rattling collection tin by the gym; in America, they do things properly. On arrival, a 'Welcoming Committee' dispenses 'goodie bags' containing mugs and booklets about the school. Pictures of past Cushing events adorn the walls. We all wear a badge giving name and year of graduation; everyone starts hugging past enemies and former boyfriends and exclaiming about hair loss and weight gain. The Class of '44 is out in force, sporting enormous Class of '44 badges and matching straw boaters decked out in the school colours of purple and white.
After the commemoration service, each class gathers for photographs on the front lawn. 'Doncha always like to be the best?' says Hazen Master, a member of the Class of '44. 'I knew we'd have the best turn-out. Only 38 of us are alive now, and 22 are back here today.'
'It doesn't matter what class you are in,' responds Denise Croft, somewhat stiffly. Her class ('54) is rather thin on the ground: only three of them have appeared. Throughout the weekend, they stand together in a bewildered huddle, trying to ignore the exultant cries from the Class of '44.
Our Class of '84 is also fairly diminished. By the time of the photograph, most have trekked off to a nearby mountain to drink Budweiser and 'hang out' - we used to take our Bacardi and cigarettes up there when we were teenagers. Never mind that these are men and women on the cusp of their thirties, most working in the professions in New York or Boston. Old habits die hard, and it would seem that the furious urge to consume as much booze as possible has not palled.
'You Brits,' says our old head girl, now a Hollywood-hopeful actress, 'you think just because you speak well, you're more well-educated than we are.' She gives me a furious look. 'I've been learning how to speak with flat vowels, and you know my head of drama says I'm better even than the English themselves.'
Others seem not to have changed. A studious girl, always ignored by her class- mates has come back with her boyfriend, and is still being ignored. She leaves the campus early the next day and heads back home.
Men who were school heart-throbs are still charming. Jessie the school 'singer' is still reminding us that she has perfect pitch. My old boyfriend Marc, with whom I had a serious communication problem, is still conversing in monosyllables, although we agree it is delightful to see one another. Tim, a keen hockey player, looks nostalgically over the school playing grounds. 'I miss the sporting scene,' he admits. 'Here, we were without a worry.'
'Never go back for your 10th reunion,' advised a Class of '64 member. 'Everyone is still unsure of what they're doing in life; they're not far enough away from their school days.'
At least we are able to avoid 'special treatment' in the form of a 'personal' chat from the headmaster. 'They reminded us about putting Cushing in our wills,' says Sue Sheverell ('44). 'I didn't like that. I know that's why they have these reunions, but I thought it was kinda tasteless.'
'How much have I given over the years?' asks her husband, Bud, waving a fat hand. 'I'm not getting into dollars here,' he says firmly.
There is an edge of competitiveness. 'We've pledged to buy a chair for the chapel before we leave,' says Nancy Master, Sue's class-mate. 'That's 100 bucks, straight off.'
The Class of '64 is more sanguine. Lounging about with long hair, untucked shirts and pierced (male) ears, they clearly still see themselves as a radical force. 'Sure there is an element of greed to all this,' admits Douglas Wright, an antique clock seller in Connecticut.
'Even before I got here someone called, touching me for dollars 35.' He glanced down to the baseball diamond below the main hall. 'But you need to come back. I remember my teenage years so intensely. I remember standing right here when I heard JFK had been shot, wondering what to do.' His class-mate June Rozzo bounces up, waving their yearbook. Innocent-looking students with hairgrips peer out from the pages. 'I think the men have changed more than the ladies,' she remarks with relish.
Overall, the all-singing, pom-pom-waving, peanut butter-crunching atmosphere of Cushing Academy is undiminished. My old room-mate turns up and introduces me to her husband. 'His first name's Carl, but he goes by Chip,' she tells me confidentially. Chip nods his head by way of response.
At the lunch-time 'cookout', held on a field between the school buildings, a jazz band plays over the mass devouring of 250lb of spare ribs, 14,000 chicken pieces and a vat of potato salad.
Later that day, at the Alumni Banquet, the headmaster climbs on to the podium for his report. Far from being an account of the progress past pupils may have made since leaving the school, this proves to be simply a totting-up of the money received from the alumni this weekend. Which, by all accounts, is a fair amount. Behind me, members of the Class of '84 have formed a human chain and are smuggling bottles of wine out to the current pupils in their dormitories. 'To think we thought we fooled our teachers all the time,' says Rainbow, taking it easy with the booze due to an early start the next morning. 'We never did, and we're not fooling them now.'
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