5,000 miles and 5,000 more

Half way around the world and back again. That’s how far I travelled recently for a moment that was just four thousandths of a second long.

My initial motivation for the trip came from the appearance on the calendar of my high school thirty-year reunion. It was taking place in Glasgow, which according to Google is precisely 10,541 miles from Melbourne as the Airbus flies. It was also three years since I’d seen my parents, and three years since I’d had a fix of my former hometown, so I decided to make the long overdue trip to coincide with the reunion.

I had mixed emotions – much excitement but also a tinge of nervousness – at the idea of a reunion. After all, I was one of the shy ones at high school. In fact, my fading memories had me convinced that I was the shy one at school. The only shy one. From my point of view, everyone else’s cups were overflowing with confidence, comedy and camaraderie within their own groups, while I suffocated in silence. At times it had felt like I was wandering around in my own separate mini world, within but apart from their wider world.

I was also on the receiving end of an onslaught of cruel nicknames, and the butt of many jokes – again I felt like I was the only one. I felt excluded, like I didn’t fit in.

This made me turn into a loner for one of those seemingly endless school years. Every lunchtime during third year, I’d make my way to an empty classroom on the ground floor of the maths building at one end of the school campus, and I’d pass the hour reading there in silence. Nobody noticed for many months – and that’s the way I wanted it, because I felt safe, invisible. But then one day, out of the blue, one of my former tormentors asked during class if I’d like to join in at football. I was sceptical, but I accepted. I played football that lunchtime like none of the previous months of isolation had ever happened. Even the name calling had stopped – I tasted friendship and freedom once again.

I emerged from my physical chrysalis that day. But every time I walked past the ground floor classroom in the Maths building, it was a constant reminder for the rest of my school years of my mental chrysalis, of where and who I had once been, and from where within my head I was still to fully emerge to the point where I could trust people. One day I would fully emerge, but the entire experience left me feeling scarred for years, long after the school bell rang out for the very last time.

Needless to say, my high school years were not amongst my happiest. So why bother travelling all that way to a school reunion, and risk stirring up all that drama in my head again? Would I even fit in? Would anyone even remember me? Would I still be treated on the night like the shy schoolboy I once was?

Of course I realised this was not going to be a problem. But those lingering doubts from my distance past did occasionally and briefly play on my mind after I’d booked the plane tickets. I put it down to the black dog’s distant, fading howl trying to remind me of a person I once was, a long time ago in a school far, far away.

In any case, this is not a sob story or a cry out for any kind of sympathy. Plus, I covered all this in Part 3 of this blog, entitled Pizza. I’ve managed to finally reconcile with my past, and leave it in the past – and I know that who I am today is not the same person I once was. For sure, there are still those bits from my past that the black dog occasionally tries to taunt me with even today, but I’ve developed the ability to rationalise my way out of their hold over me.

I’ve also reconnected with many people from school on the likes of Instagram and Facebook, and it’s fair to say we are all quite different people to those we once were.

As the date of the reunion drew closer, it dawned on me that as well as feeling like I was The Shy One for many years I’d also felt like I was The Scarred One. I’d never considered that others too might have borne and subsequently hidden behind their own scars. The cool ones, the popular ones, the sporty ones, the funny ones, the good-looking ones. Even the enviable ones who were cool, popular, sporty, funny and good-looking may have borne their own scars. Perhaps even the bullies with their seemingly insurmountable cruel confidence. Could some of them too have been hiding behind a mask of false confidence at school, deflecting their own self-doubts by targeting my laden-bare lack of confidence? And could they too have been scarred in their own ways for years thereafter?

Orange Octopuses
One such person is my ex classmate, Sanjeev Kohli, who is also Dancing With The Black Dog’s UK Ambassador.

My memory of Sanjeev is that he was one of the highly intelligent ones, as well as being warm, friendly and good at football. It’s strange the little things we remember, but I also vividly remember a day in first year when he brought in a small rubber sticky toy octopus from his parents’ shop. It was also bright orange with small black eyes. That’s how clearly I remember it.

Sanjeev threw the orange octopus against the white tiled classroom wall, and it slowly slid down the wall like a small bright real live orange octopus might.

We all stared in awe.

He threw it again.

It slid down the wall again.

A chorus of “Sanj! Can you get me one! Sanj! Can you get me one! Sanj! Can you get me one!” ensued.

So based on that single vivid memory, I also spent the rest of my school years thinking of Sanjeev as being popular and confident

After school, Sanjeev went on to study medicine. But he quit Uni. He actually made the bold decision to quit a prestigious course after just one year to have a crack at his dream of working in radio and television. He then went on to become a local television and radio celebrity, and remains so to this day.

Here was a happy and confident guy who had truly taken hold of his future and followed his dreams. Or so I thought.

Sanjeev only became famous after I left Scotland in 1996. So while I was having coffee with him a few days before the reunion to talk about the future of Dancing With The Black Dog, in my eyes was still just Sanj from school – the Man With The Orange Octopus.

Half the eyes in the rest of the café, however, were staring star struck in his direction. While at the same time, my jaw nearly headed in the direction of the floor as he revealed to me how he too felt incredibly shy at school. And that he too had gone on to suffer from depression for many years.

So now I knew I wasn’t the only one. I really had been so selfishly caught up in my own school-induced shyness and scars that I didn’t recognise the same in those around me.

The Descension Into Glasgow
A few nights later, on the last Saturday night in September, fifty ex-classmates, many who hadn’t seen each other in thirty years, descended onto a pub in the centre of Glasgow, many like me no doubt with that mix of both excitement and nervousness I’m sure. But us fifty people ended up talking merrily away for hours like we’d seen each other at school the day before. It seemed that all nerves and scars were left at the door that night.

There were many people there, I’m sure, whom I talked to for longer on the night of the reunion than I had during my entire five years at shy school. Rather than talking to old friends, it was more like many of us were becoming new friends on the night. New friends who shared a common and vivid experience during an impressionable and often traumatic time in our mutual pasts.

None of my former tormentors could make it along on the night, but I’m still in touch with them too, and I consider them friends. After all, they were just kids back then, I’m 100% certain they too have changed, and I’m 100% certain we’d have talked away merrily too, had any of them made it to the reunion. I bear them not a single grudge, and that is a choice I made a long time ago. It was a tough choice, made all the more tough because for many years it didn’t feel like I had a choice on the matter.

And as I reflect now on the night of the reunion, I have to admit to feeling a certain warmth in finally fitting in amongst all these faces from my past. I also felt like I was finally amongst them all as an equal. After all, that’s exactly what we all were and always had been. Equals.

We had a very bold Latin motto at our high school – “Ad Majora Natus Sum”, meaning “I was born for greater things”. I wore this motto on my green blazer every day for five long years.

Lacking any sense of confidence during my school years, I always felt it was those around me who were born for greater things. Yet one thing I’ve learned over the years, a fact that the black dog constantly tried to deny me from believing, is that one of the greatest things we are born for is to realise that we are all equal. Despite what my memories and perceptions may have led me to believe, none of us were born to be any greater, or do any greater thing than another. And that lesson was cemented, the black dog was absolutely silenced on that point, on that memorable Saturday night in September 2018.

Because there were so many people at the reunion, some of the conversations I had were only brief. Some were fleeting hellos to people I had been keen to talk to for longer, thinking that I might catch them later in the night. Despite everyone’s best efforts, it was impossible to talk to everyone.

But not even the briefest of these conversations were just four thousandths of a second long. No, the reunion may have led me to Glasgow, but it wasn’t the scene of the very brief moment I ultimately came all that way for.

A Story Of Brief Time
I decided to bring my son, Jack with me for the trip. It had also been three years since he had seen his grandparents, and the date of the reunion was right in the middle of his school holidays.

My wife and I decided that we’d make it a special father and son trip to commemorate Jack’s last year at primary school, and I promised to do the same with Jack’s younger brother, Freddie, in three years’ time.

I planned to cram the trip full of adventures, to make as many memories with Jack as possible. First, a week in Glasgow with a visit to the likes of the Transport Museum, the Science Centre, Celtic Football Club’s Parkhead Stadium, and one of the old castles. Perhaps even a hill walk, and for Jack, a walk around every sports shop in the city centre. We also had a big international kids v parents football match with another bunch of my old friends and their kids on the Sunday after the reunion. Then there was some time with family, before we headed south to spend more time with my sister and her family in England. The icing on the cake was getting tickets to a Manchester United match, followed by a tour of Old Trafford a couple of days later. Barely enough time to recover from jet lag on the way over before taking a quick stopover in Dubai on the way back Down Under, touching down in Melbourne again exactly 13.5 days after we had flown out.

I’m not mentioning all this because I’m trying to be in the running for a Dad of the Year Award. There’s a reason which will become apparent as to why I’ve listed above what my own Dad described as “quite an ambitious program indeed.”

In fact, if the truth be told, I was so hell bent on making this a special trip – making memories for Jack – that I put myself under pressure at times to make sure he didn’t get bored. So one afternoon when I asked him what he wanted to do, he asked:

“Could we go go-karting, Dad?”

“Go-karting?” I thought to myself. “GO KARTING? That’s such an EXTRAVAGANCE!”

But then I thought what the heck. We were on holiday. So once again I turned to Google and found that there was a go karting track less than 3 miles from Mum and Dad’s house. Google also advised that as it was midweek, they had a “two races for the price of one” deal. So off we went, with Mum and Dad as support crew.

Because it was midweek, we also ended up having the entire track to ourselves. Just Jack and I, head to head, two races of ten minutes each, fastest lap wins. I figured I might have to go easy at times to keep him in contention.

How wrong could I have been?

No sooner had the lights turned green than Jack zipped off. Twisting and turning his way fearlessly through each lap, I struggled to keep up with him. Sure, he was lighter than me, but I’ve had a driving licence for 30 years.

I somehow won the first race by about half a second, but in the second race, it was as if Jack moved up a gear, he was in the zone. It was nail bitingly close, but with a confidence that defied his young years, Jack was unpassable. Ten minutes later, the race was over. We took off our helmets and nervously moved to the seating area to check out our times.

And there it was.

Dad – fastest lap – 32.415 seconds

Jack – fastest lap – 32.411 seconds

Beaten by four thousandths of a second!

Jack was ecstatic. Heck, I was ecstatic for him. He relished the moment by taking top spot on the makeshift podium and raising his arms in victory.

Of course, there were many favourite moments on that trip. And while Jack did say the best parts were seeing family again, the one we spoke about most was the one when we were both behind a steering wheel.

I knew there was something more significant to these four thousandths of a second. I thought about it over the weeks that followed. I couldn’t quite finger on it, but I couldn’t let it go. And then towards the end of my first week back at work, my colleague Elizabeth shared a blog post with me, which stopped me in my tracks.

The blog post was written by Karthik Rajan, and is aimed at parents who feel guilty for not spending enough time with their kids. You can read the full post here.

The key points the author makes are that “memories are a collection of peak moments, and not average, minute-by-minute activities. Feelings are in full flow during peak moments. And those are the feelings that create memories.”

From another angle, as Mr Rajan points out, “during the peak years of our earning potential, our kids grow rapidly. The guilt of working parents lingers — could I spend more time with them? But children will forget what you did for them on a minute-by-minute basis. The memories that linger are how you made them feel during the peak moments — small, wholesome, genuine moments.”

Mr Rajan’s key take away: “be on the lookout – cherish the peak moments, savour them and watch your guilt melt away.”

Reading this blog post sent me into a bit of a spiral. A peak moment with myself. It got me thinking about the pressure the black dog puts on us to spend more time with our kids – and the depression and anxiety that the guilt can bring on as the weeks flow into months and into years and our kids race out of school and into eventual adulthood in the blink of an eye. It got me thinking about how I had tried so hard to pack Jack’s time in Scotland with back to back memories, yet a peak moment just four thousandths of a second long was also the most memorable; the one that mattered.

So recently after the reunion, it also got me reflecting on my own school years. I realised I had spent so much time defining my years at school by prolonged negative experiences, that I hadn’t given any thought to the peak moments of positivity.

Chris Waters
One of my peak memories from school – a peak moment because it is one of the funniest I remember – was on a cold, dark winter’s Friday afternoon in second year. We had History as the second last class of the day, and the teacher’s nickname was TMcD.

TMcD liked to think he was pretty cool. He also loved the sound of his own rambling voice. So on those second last lessons of the week in second year, TMcD would sit at the front of the class, with his feet up on the front row desk. He would just read verbatim from the giant history textbook, and rant on about the likes of how World War I started because Archduke Franz Ferdinand got shot in Sarajevo.

And seated at that front row desk, at the feed of TMcD, was Chris Waters. TMcD put Chris at the front row because Chris was a bit, well, mischievous. In fact, Chris was a lot mischievous. He always had a cunning smile on his face – because he always seemed to be looking for his next way to make a laugh. But he wasn’t the sort to do so to seek attention. He seemed to do so because he wanted to have fun and make those around him laugh.

On this particular Friday, I watched from a few rows back. Chris was hunched low over his desk, just below TMcD’s line of sight behind the text book he was reading from. He was quite literally right under TMcD’s nose, and he was attempting to pen the letters “TMcD” onto the sole of one of TMcD’s large feet that were planted firmly on his desk.

Chris had managed to finish penning the letters T and M, when TMcD suddenly uncrossed his legs. Chris quickly sat upright and tried to look innocent. But it was not necessary. TMcD didn’t even look up from his text book as he recrossed his legs the other way and rambled on. Chris, meanwhile, went on to complete his masterpiece with the letters c and D.

With visions of TMcD walking the school corridors after class, literally leaving his mark on the floor, we all tried to contain our laughter. Meanwhile, Chris remained poker faced, meaning the only person likely to not get in any trouble if TMcD asked what the sniggering was about, was Chris Waters himself.

I’d like to say I felt sorry for TMcD, but he was totally oblivious to it. Fortunately, the giant history text book and the ranting of TMcD’s own voice seemed to drown the sound of the laughter for him, as he carried on his commentary towards World War II.

To this day, that historic Friday afternoon in second year remains my most peak, vivid and funny memory from school.

But it was only after reading Mr Rajan’s blog that I understood its significance as a peak moment.

Rather than looking at it from the point of view of a parent – peak moments we create for our children – what if we looked at it from a different perspective?

What if, I wondered… what if the peak moments of joy that we experience as a result of the actions of others are actually exposing to us something in them that we like about ourselves? Perhaps they might tell us something about who we really are. Something unexpressed, something we don’t do or someone we don’t allow ourselves to be because we don’t think it fits in with the expectations others have of us.

I certainly didn’t daringly flirt with getting into trouble in the way Chris Waters did. But I admired his fun-seeking spirit and his sense of humour. So what if the reason that Friday afternoon history lesson was such a peak moment for me was because I saw part of me – or part of who I wanted to become – in Chris Waters?

What if, in the lead up to the reunion, the distant and fading echo of a howling black dog, really had been trying in vain to sound its way across a chasm of three decades, hell bent on convincing me that I could never truly be the person I thought I had become?

What if school is a place where many learn who they are, by first being who they are not?

What if that fading howl was making one last gasp attempt to convince me I was destined to always be defined by the vulnerable teenager I once was? Defined by the minute-by-minute activities from my past that once consumed me, that is, rather than by the peak moments I had so often overlooked.

On the other hand, what if Mr Rajan’s blog post also had a hidden message? What if Mr Rajan also wanted us to be on the lookout, to cherish the peak moments, to study them and to recognise our true selves within them?

Well, once again I realise that’s a choice I can make, so that’s exactly what I choose to take away from it. So on that note, thank you, Mr Rajan.

And thank you, Chris Waters. 5,000 times and 5,000 more.


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