Sam Greenley’s mother called yesterday to ask if we had plans for Speech Day. I don’t know what was going on in 1988, but most of the women who conceived boys that year named them Sam. There are six Sams in our Sam’s year in his house at Harrow. I used to defend my naming skills by pointing out that he is the third Sam Carlisle to go to that school, the first one so long ago that his name is carved on the wall of the Old Schools, now better known as Prof Flitwick’s classroom in the Harry Potter films. Tom, Jack, Max and Luke were late Eighties names, too, and when my mother met Sam’s friends at his third birthday party, she told my father: ‘It sounded like a gang of gunslingers.’ Still, I was relieved that another Sam’s mother was organising the Speech Day picnic, making it an all-inclusive affair for all the leavers in the house. Every year, I suffer from what my grandmother called ‘Ballroom Panic’, a form of social misery that stems from not organising the picnic on time/quite right/with others. Worse than the agony of walking across a ballroom floor is the look of disappointment in your child’s eyes because you still haven’t cracked the picnic code.
But soon after I hung up, a blue feeling came over me. This is the Last Speech Day. The last picnic. The end of Sam’s schooldays. It’s not like I’ve been out of the room while the transformation happened, but I feel like I fell asleep. I’ve missed something. Worse still, I feel like I haven’t told Sam everything of importance that I know. It’s not just his schooldays that are coming to an end: so are my days of influencing the kind of person he will become. When I went away to school, my father wrote me a typed letter every week. Wonderful letters that covered everything from how Louis Pasteur stopped an epidemic of cholera in chickens, to the importance of reading the editorials in newspapers. He would explain how to make decent coffee, then describe watching a rooster grab a lizard and gobble it up.
Mobile phones and emails ended all that. We don’t write letters that say: ‘We love you, not because you get all As, but because you are decent and loving and deal with what life brings you with courage.’ Instead, we write emails: ‘No tennis shoes here. Look in your cricket bag.’
Besides giving Sam a name that would not set him apart, we brought him into a world that had become gridlocked while we weren’t looking. Five generations of Carlisles had gone to Harrow before our Sam, but when it was his turn, it became a terrifying competition, with Common Entrance figures dangled over his head like a guillotine. The pile up now is on the road to university. Our generation has produced a surplus of super smart, studious, adventurous, ambitious, creative, talented, multi-lingual, much travelled enfants terribles who can’t get into their first-choice universities despite five A levels and a gap year curing leprosy.
And when, against incredible odds, those who have looped the loops, and emerged as brainy graduates with stars and Firsts, find they are expected to work as unpaid ‘interns’ unless they are junior doctors, in which case, they may not work at all. These are topics I won’t bring up at the Speech Day picnic. I’ve made a vow not to rain on this parade. Instead, I’m making 144 chocolate brownies and bringing a chiller full of Wyken Moonshine, determined at last to get it right. And I know that if I call out ‘Sam’, a sea of gorgeous faces will turn my way.