What happens when a bunch of women in their early 50s, who had been in the same year at the same boarding school, gather together for the first time in 35 years?
Yes, it does get loud. Very loud! But it gets a whole lot more than that too. It turns into two days of condensing around 30 life stories into scattered conversations and an extraordinary journey into what it means to be woman.
We all went to an all-girls boarding school in Hawke’s Bay in the early 80s. Last week’s gathering took place in Auckland and women had travelled from across the country to be there. Others had even come from the UK, United States and Australia.
Many of us, myself included, had approached the gathering with a mix of nervousness and excitement. It brought back so many school day memories and for most of us, not all of them were good! We wondered if the ‘cool girls’ still be ‘cool’ and we hoped that the nerdy ones had transformed into beautiful and talented swans. We needn’t have worried though as this gathering was joyous and inclusive. Seeing each other as individuals and hearing our stories revealed, sharing insecurities and achievements shows how time is a great leveller.
Many of us, myself included, had approached the gathering with a mix of nervousness and excitement. It brought back so many school day memories and for most of us, not all of them were good!
What happened to these women in the intervening years? It is not for me to share their intimate details here, but it was fascinating to see how we have journeyed through life. Most of them have children and some were unsettled by the loss of identity that can come with the onset of the empty nest. Only three of us in the group of 30 women had not had children. Some have carved out careers, others haven’t. Some have had illness, injuries and bereavement. Some have got thinner, others bigger. There were lines and grey hair and hot flushes.
It was fascinating to ask the questions of people that we did not have the maturity to ask at school. We learned some back stories to our school days. These were not heroic stories of the ‘privileged’. These were stories of what it means to be human and female: happy families and broken ones, love and protection, loneliness and sexual abuse, all standing side by side 35 years on. I admired every one of these beautiful women.
When I explored the reasons why my old school contemporaries celebrated their 50s there was one comment that often came up first... “I am no longer so concerned about body shape and if I am attractive”,
There was an overriding sense of celebration of reaching our 50s. We have made it this far and we are grateful. When I explored the reasons why, there was one comment that often came up first, “I am no longer so concerned about body shape and if I am attractive”, or “I no longer care so much about trying to be something I am not”.
I was really struck by this, Each and every one of us, regardless of shape or physical appearance had all struggled with how we might look to others.
The next comment that came was “and I no longer care what other people think”. Hallelujah to that. Finally we are starting to realise that to be ourselves - is totally OK.
On the last evening, some of us were back at the motel in one of our rooms where we were all bunked up together, just like the old days. One woman, who remembers school as a time of deep insecurity and being (in her words) ‘a complete bitch to everyone’, reflected on the reunion. This woman has dedicated her life to nursing others, she is bringing up two beautiful children (I know because I have been lucky enough to meet them) and has created a loving home with her husband. As we sat and chatted (with slightly hoarse voices) she said, “This reunion has been so healing. I have worked hard all my life. I have given out love and I have never taken anything for granted and now I have realised that not only am I OK, I am actually a really good role model for my kids.’
I think I may have cried a little bit at that moment.
Each of us tries to get through life as best we can. We all have joys and sorrows, achievements and regrets, hopes and fears. Every one of us has been tested by something at some time and I think this all contributes to what makes a woman beautiful. I found myself feeling proud of what I have achieved so far in life and very happy in the work that I do at Archeus, dedicating my life now to creating things to help women through the tough stuff as well as the good times.
... I have realised that not only am I OK, I am a really good role model for my kids.’
I was profoundly moved by the experience of those two days. Over 35 years ago we all shared an experience of that school and we all went out into the world at the same time. Our paths have been diverse, yet here we all are. And now we say farewell again, heading out into our respective worlds…. real women living real lives.
These two days reminded me of three things:
1: Friendships endure
2: Don't spend your time worrying about what others may think of you - they haven't lived your life
3: Believe in yourself - you're already amazing to have made it this far.
To real women living real lives, I salute you.