Speakers’ Corner – Never Unprepared

My daughter Izzy never listens to the podcast.

            ‘Dad, you just talk about the past all the time.’

            ‘No, I don’t,’ I replied, trying not to show my disappointment, ‘but it’s just that I have a lifetime of experience to draw on.’

            ‘Exactly,’ she laughed, ‘tales from the dark ages!’

            Since we had that conversation a few months ago, I wince whenever I draft a Speakers’ Corner.  However, I’ve thought about nothing but the past over the last couple of weeks.  The reason – a dinner to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the merger of my old school, Daniel Stewart’s, and Melville College.  I was in Primary 7 and attended Daniel Stewart’s.  The leaving class of 1980 is taking a couple of tables, and I’ve reconnected with school friends I’ve not seen since we were eighteen. 

            Last night, I shared some old-school photographs with the class of 1980 WhatsApp group after Stephen Wells visited Powdermills on his way to see his ninety-one-year-old mum, who lives in Lochgair.  Stephen and I became friends when he joined the school in primary 5.  He was taller than I remember but depressingly as fit as a fiddle.  I knew nothing of his life story, and we spent a couple of hours catching up on our lives, family, careers, and, sadly, some old classmates who were no longer with us.  What struck me was how relaxed and easy it was to talk after forty-three years and how similar our lives were.  He had three grown-up kids, a business career, and is now enjoying semi-retirement.

            One of the photos that I posted was a class picture of 5M. I’m standing next to Stephen in the back row, smiling.  However, looking closely, you’ll see I’m wearing a long-collared white shirt.  It’s distinct from the other boys.  The truth was that I was wearing a woman’s blouse, Miss Fagan’s, my old teacher from the previous year.  I was wearing that because I came to school in the standard grey shirt, except it was school photograph day, and everyone and I mean everyone, including the senior school, had to wear a white shirt.  I noticed it the minute I arrived at school, and I had that stomach-churning nausea that standing out from the crowd always gave me.  The teachers didn’t give me a row and devised a solution.  In fact, I distinctly remember our class teacher, Mrs MacWilliam, chuckling as I put on Mrs Fagan’s white blouse, and she knotted my tie.  I felt awful, yet the silk blouse was soft on my skin, and Miss Fagan’s perfume lingered long after the photograph had been taken and I had put my grey shirt back on.

The real story, the saga behind the photo and the smiles, was that my grey shirt represented my home life.  My mum and dad were going through an acrimonious separation that ended in divorce. At the time, my mum had mental health problems.  These issues were taboo in the 60s and 70s, so I veiled my life in secrecy.  My teachers, school and friends never knew of my circumstances, and I was always on tenterhooks, ensuring that my homelife appeared as normal as everyone else.  Except it wasn’t.   At that time, we lived in a flat in Bruntsfield, and my father lived at our farm in West Linton.  To make matters worse, we moved house every six months as Mum moved from one rented house or apartment to another. 

Mrs MacWilliam had tried to phone home to explain that I needed to wear a white shirt the following day for the school photograph.  However, no one answered the numbers she had.  Mrs MacWilliam asked Stephen’s mum to contact us and pass on the news.  She did, but my mum was distracted, tense, preoccupied, and forgot.

As I chatted with Stephen, I recalled how we had a bond due to our circumstances.  His mum and dad were going through a divorce as well.  I felt comfortable in his company because he got it.  In my year of 100 boys, two other boys had similar situations, and I was drawn to their company, too.  What a contrast to when my kids went to the schools. The diversity of home life was varied but accepted, and the children were open and happy explaining their circumstances.

All this nostalgia and reminiscing has made me consider what the school stands for.  The school motto is Never Unprepared, and I’ve certainly followed this mantra throughout my life.  I like to arrive early, be organised, and have completed my research.  However, whether this has more to do with the school values or my foibles is arguable.  Then, I thought of other FPs and their traits.  I immediately thought of the great rugby players of my time: Douglas Morgan, Ian Forsyth, Jim, and Finlay Calder.  They were all great athletes, had leadership qualities in spades, and played the game of rugby and life the correct way.  They would be ideal examples of a Stew Mellie.

Stewart’s Melville has been a constant throughout my life, creating a bond with my classmates and the institution. I’m thankful for the tolerance the school afforded me. It has provided me with a community and a stable environment into adulthood.  I’ve followed the FP rugby club, and in the 1990s, my son attended Stewart’s Melville (class 2009), and the girls went to Mary Erskine (class of 2011 and 2013) like my sisters before.  It was with a good deal of irony that my son JJ and I were met on his first day by my old form 2 teacher, Bryan Lewis, then headmaster of the Junior school.

But in the end, in my opinion, one person epitomises the values of Stewart’s Melville College.  Mike Sims won’t be known amongst my old schoolmates, nor many of the teachers at the school, as he was a Stewarty, as we always called ourselves in the early years of the merger.  He was in the class of 1972.  He was a prefect, played in the 1st XV and was in the athletics team.  He had a career in the financial sector.  I first met him when my son John joined the mini rugby club at Inverleith.  He was chairman of the mini rugby, and he and Jim Calder had created the section from nothing.  Mike was personable, friendly, collaborative, organised, tolerant and enthusiastic.  He had a charm through his softly spoken manner, encouraged and motivated.  He was always cheerful and optimistic.  He gave all his spare time to the community selflessly.  What energy he had was focused like a laser on the team effort of building consensus and improvement.  These are the values and traits of the merged school.  He was a school governor and the chairman for many years.  I’m sure his assured leadership contributed to continuing excellence.

Tragically, he lost his son Stephen in 2012, and it shook the whole school community but must have been especially hard for his wife, Joan and family.  And no doubt that took its toll when we lost Mike far too early in 2019.  Mike was a bridge builder ready for the world’s challenges, Never Unprepared.