I’ve been called many things, but ‘Writer in Residence’ is definitely a new one. I don’t even 100% know what it means, but I do know that last week it was my job, as I was invited to return to Caulfield Grammar School to run a bunch of writing workshops with students across every year level.
It was an exciting and flattering offer that came about due to a chance run-in with Michael Knuppel, my old literature teacher and a staunch early supporter of my writing. After telling Michael about the stuff I’ve been up to of late he suggested a return to Caulfield on the other side of the classroom divide and I was more than happy to oblige. But, as seems to be the theme lately, things turned very busy and returning to my old school was immediately preceded by a week in Sydney working in writers rooms with only a single day off in between, so by the time I set foot on campus again I’d be lying if I said the residency was something I’d been thinking a lot about.
At first, being back was pleasant but a little weird. Walking into rooms I hadn’t seen in ten years prompted a bit of a deluge of long buried memories – places where fights, wide ranging conversations and romantic interludes had occurred over the course of the three years I spent there. But alongside this were the many ways in which the school had changed. It made for an oddly mismatched experience, one of mingled nostalgia and unfamiliarity that left me feeling at a bit of a remove from everything, like a half-forgotten ghost drifting through the halls, neither a total stranger nor completely belonging.
This feeling grew and came into focus over the following days. Understand; Caulfield was a huge part of my life. Leaving my hometown to board in the city precipitated everything that happened next. Boarding school was a massive change in my teenage life, a bittersweet uprooting from the home and friends I knew, undertaken in order to chase something ostensibly better. And while the ride was always bumpy, the school did exactly what it was supposed to, leading to lifelong friendships and opportunities that created the path I’ve been on ever since. And then there are the ideas that came from my time there. Without Caulfield there’s no Boone Shepard or Windmills. Without Caulfield I’m not convinced I would be the same person.
Boarding means that school becomes your life in a way it doesn’t for others, which means that leaving is more than just finishing your education; it’s leaving home all over again but this time stepping out into the world without the possibility of returning. Safety vanishes, your friends aren’t constantly around you anymore and so in a weird way I think my memories of Caulfield Grammar eventually become a sort of yearned for halcyon time precisely because there was never any chance of a homecoming or easier transition. Once I was out, I was out. Until, of course, last week.
But ten years is a long time and a school, even a boarding school, sees that mass exodus of part of the ecosystem every year. My goodbye was ten cycles ago, so any sense of re-establishing some past connection was always going to be a little one sided. That’s not to say that between classes I didn’t indulge in a little nostalgia wallowing. I wandered through the boarding house, went down into the drama studio, the walk to which remains lined with photos from plays I either saw or was in. I sat outside the school and did a bit of work on Windmills for the first time in over a year, almost in the same spot where I first started the book a decade ago. Sometimes, in those places, echoes of the past seemed to creep back; a familiar smell, a sight or detail I thought I’d forgotten, memories and names that I haven’t had occasion to think about in years prompted back by an unexpected association. A sense of disconnect and unfamiliarity persisted, but not all the time. Sometimes the past shone through.
But even a quite literal homecoming like this one ends up being a bit stunted. My time at Caulfield and the particular feelings I associate with it were made up of the irreducibly complex tapestry of so many impossible to recapture factors. The friends I had. The music I listened to. The teachers, most of whom are long gone. And above all, the person I was then; petulant, childish and so gloriously stupid about so many things.
At that school I felt more keenly than I have in years the presence of the dumb kid I used to be. With that comes sadness; that I’m not that openly emotional anymore, that the earth-shattering thrill of seeing your crush smiling at you or getting the lead role in a school play no longer has the immense power it once did, that I’m can’t as easily just be joyful. But the sadness sits hand in hand with pride. That I’m learning to move past the tunnel-vision selfishness, the back-stabbing cowardice, bad temper and arrogance that characterised my teenage self, traits I’ve figured out how to recognise and eschew wherever I can because they’re no longer indicative of the person I want to be.
I think I spent a lot of my early writing career exploring nostalgia and why it’s not ultimately a good thing (Reunion, Hometown, One Year Ago) largely because that was a lesson I was struggling to learn myself. A few years on, my perspective has changed a little. I don’t think nostalgia is inherently a good thing, but I also think that it’s healthy to remember and engage with where you came from, if only to remind yourself of how far you’ve come.
Writing words about writing words.