It is a truth universally acknowledged that a girl starting a new school must be in want of a friend.
Little wonder, then that the topic of friendships dominates much of life in school in the first year, and often periodically in the years beyond. Sometimes, especially when we are growing up and exploring our identity, things go awry and, when this happens, it can be hard to avoid being engulfed by the emotional fall-out. ‘Girls on Board’ – our programme for tackling these issues (which Mrs O’Doherty wrote about in her High News article recently) – starts from the premise that, while we all need friends, managing our friendships can be tricky. It works towards the goal of empowering girls to manage the ups and downs of their friendships – building them, keeping them, salvaging them, changing them, leaving them behind – while also staying focused on the bigger picture of school life and its many demands and delights.
With the Annual Alumnae Reunion Lunch still fresh in my memory, though, I want to focus on the other side of the equation and consider the gifts that friendships, especially lifelong friendships, bring. The din of talk and laughter in the Dining Room on Reunion Day, Saturday 26 January, spoke volumes (literally, one might say) for the wonderful gift of friendship. Dozens of women, some regular attenders, others first-timers or decade specials, converged at school to reconnect and reminisce. They came from all over the country (as they always do) to be there. Some, who left school perhaps sixty years ago, were given lifts. Some, from far-flung places, were offered space in spare rooms and on sofa beds so that they could make a weekend of it. All were drawn by the power of friendship – the bonds that begin in childhood and are forged in the vivid milieux of our schooldays. The years peeled away as memories (of misdemeanours, as often as not) and jokes were aired and traded, and stories ripened by years of retelling, like vintage wines.
The Ancient Greeks, whose subtlety of thought in such matters has not persisted into modern times, recognised friendship as a form of love and called it philia – a love based on shared goodwill. The inherently reciprocal nature of philia – in contrast to other forms of love, such as passion, which can be one-sided – marks out the root of its special character. It is never asymmetrical or based on power, even if one friend becomes richer or more successful than the other. I believe that the essentially equal and reciprocal nature of true friendship is vitally important to young women as they leave school to enter a competitive and often unforgiving world where disinterested support can be hard to find.
Friendship comes at a price, though, both in effort and in forbearance. Gaining the full benefits involves taking the long view to surmount bumps in the road of relationships. It entails looking beyond the superficial transactionalism of social media likes to a deeper mutual regard. It means not sweating the small stuff. There may be differences of opinion. Ride them out. There may be quarrels. Patch them up. You may feel you are drifting further and further apart. Travel further. Make the effort to bridge the gap – going to your School Reunion is a great way to do this!
The push-me-pull-you dynamic of friendship will surely even out across shared lifetimes. Your A Level results were better than mine, I’m now getting paid more than you. I help you today with a work experience opportunity for your daughter. You gave me a helping hand with a loan for my start-up when I was made redundant ten years ago. We both visit Janet, whom we met when she joined the School in Year 4, because she is having a hard time with her ill partner.
Elizabeth Jennings, a poet and practitioner of friendship, summed it up exactly when she wrote:
Two people, yes, two lasting friends.
The giving comes, the taking ends
There is no measure for such things.
For this all Nature slows and sings.
This is the sort of friendship I see in evidence every year at our Reunion and it is one of the reasons that the event has an energy and an atmosphere about it that is unmistakable. This is the sort of friendship I wish for, for all the girls whose start in life is spent at Northampton High – the Alumnae of the future. To whom I conclude by saying – don’t measure it, just treasure it.