I used my involvement with Armenia’s Public schools’ Recitation contest as an excuse not to go, but even if I had been in Belfast, I wouldn’t have turned up at my school reunion. I keep in touch with a lot of girls I went to school with, and the ones I don’t see or hear from, I can’t say I miss. I am sure they feel the same about me. But maybe the truth is deeper and darker than that? As Joni Mitchell had it: so many things I would have done, but clouds got in my way. Who wants to reveal that she failed to fulfill her early promise?
It is 40 years since I left high school, and 40 years since I have seen a photo of me that featured in the 1979 Victoria College Belfast magazine. A good friend who did go to the reunion posted and tagged the old photo on Facebook. In it, I am clutching a cup awarded to the schools debate champion for Northern Ireland. That was me.
I remember that contest. The thrill of winning. The joy of making listeners laugh. My dad giving me a Chambers dictionary to commemorate my achievement.
Today, here in Armenia, I work with boys and girls who are much as I was then. Imaginative, funny, cynical, bright, ambitious and scared. The 80 who made it to the national finals of NPRC had beaten 1550 other competitors to get there. (This is rather more than competed in Northern Ireland’s debate contest in the Dark Ages). They were word perfect, high energy, original, passionate and will live in my heart always. They, of course, are competing in their third language. I still speak only Northern Irish English.
Northern Ireland in the 1970s was a grim place and any sentient teen felt isolated from real life and real opportunity. Many of us would have to get out to get on. Our Poetry kids here feel much the same way–but ask them where they see themselves in 40 years and most will say Armenia. They know they are the future of their country, and everything they do today is helping to ready them for their responsibility.
Joni Mitchell’s song Both Sides Now was one of our 11th form choices this year. Two weeks after the contest, the words are still running in my head in a loop.
Poetry people: I’ll say I love you right out loud. May your next 40 years be filled with work you love, and may you and Armenia reach your evident and glorious potential.
Just as my close school friends have championed me over the years, I hope you will keep in touch with your NPRC network and cast off other classmates who you don’t get, and who don’t get you.
Alla recites Liz Lochead’s poem: For My Grandmother Knitting
Just as I had teachers and mentors who helped me grow in skills and confidence– and who ferried me to contests far and wide– so I hope you will stay in touch with me — and other volunteers, teachers, judges, and sponsors– who can help you now and in the future. There will be clouds. Don’t allow them in your way.
Click this link to see Martin recite Both Sides Now