Welcoming the new boy at school

by Harry on December 21, 2016

When I was 13 a new boy called Matthew Arnold arrived at my secondary school. It wasn’t the beginning of the year, just some random autumn day — not even a Monday. 15 minutes before the bell went for school Ms. Bolton brought him to me through the drizzle, told me his name, and told me to look after him and introduce him to people. He wasn’t in my class, and Ms. Bolton had never taught me, so God knows why she asked me to do it — I was not the friendliest, or the most socially adept, kid, by a long shot. He was taller than me, gangly, with big NHS specs, and more socially awkward. Being the new kid could be a cruel experience, as I later discovered myself.

We became sort-of friends, me and Matthew. He loved that ELO, in whom I had no interest at all (but I do love them now; they were/are great!). I realise now that he was clever enough to mess around in our Ad Maths class and still do well (whereas I wasn’t, really, so I messed around a bit less than he did). He lived near the school so I remember occasionally stopping at his house on the long (2 mile) walk home. He had a stupid teenage sense of humour. We all loved Reggie Perrin, and some significant amount of time was spent doing call/response “Great, CJ”; “Soooouper, CJ”. (One unfortunate kid in our year had the initials CJ, but had the character to just accept that as his given name after a while). He prank-called people called Perrin by looking them up in the phone book, and asking “Is Reggie there” and then, when whoever was on the other end denied Reggie’s existence, he’d say “Tell him CJ called. I didn’t get where I am today by not knowing Reggie’s number” or some such. It seemed hilarious at the time and, frankly, I can’t write about it even now without grinning. He was mischievous, and naughty, but never unkind — there were boys to whom many were cruel, and although I hope I never partook in that, I know he didn’t. I’m sure he had a crush on my friend Caroline, though he’d never have admitted it; we always sat with her in Ad Maths, and I’m sure that was his doing rather than hers or mine.

I moved schools 3 years later, and became the new boy myself. It was a different situation — I moved into a small 6th form in a large school — several groups of kids had known each other since reception class, and I was a distinct interloper (and the son of the Chief Education Officer). And still not especially socially adept. Nobody was assigned to me. But 2 lads called Robert — Knight, and Downer — took it on themselves to befriend me. They lived bloody miles away (as did half of the 6th formers) so I only saw them at school. We had bugger-all in common — Downer was a talented artist, and Knight was obsessed with the military; whereas I am oblivious to visual art, and more or less a pacifist. But I liked them, and found their company effortlessly relaxing. Unpretentious, unassuming, and accepting. They talked about interesting things — Knight had opinions about Israel and the Middle East which nobody I had ever known under 60 had! Downer made fun of me for being a ‘leader of men’ because of my increasing involvement in political activism, but it was always only partly fun-making. I don’t think they knew how kind they were being. But it was so easy for English kids of our generation just to ignore and marginalize other people without ever being called out on being rude or cruel. Still is no doubt. And we all knew it! Over time I became much more integrated, and had other good friends. It was only quite recently that I have re-established contact and thanked them — both of them, separately, just said something to the effect of “Its probably just that nobody talked to us, either!”. Knight buggered off into the some part of the armed forces at some point — in fact, I suspect I knew him for no more than 9 months — but Downer saw out both years of the 6th form.

I learned two weeks ago that Matthew Arnold died in a motor bike accident shortly after he left school. Is it ridiculous to be shocked and saddened by a death that occurred so long ago to someone I wouldn’t have seen anyway? Well, I was. When the information emerged in a school-based facebook discussion, several unexpected people expressed their appreciation of him. Apparently he was a fine musician, something I never knew! I hope he understood that he was appreciated: it was so easy for English kids of our generation never to know they were liked. And I hope I was half as good at making him feel welcome on that grey autumn day which wasn’t a Monday as Downer and Knight were at making me feel accepted just a couple of years later.

As for Knight and Downer: Downer is a quiet presence on my facebook feed, and teaches art in a secondary school. Knight, by contrast, is one of the loudest presences on my facebook feed (he’s the person facebook points me to most frequently) — he left the military after, from what I can make out was a long career, and makes a living as a photographer I think in Germany, and plays the role of a grumpy old man who wishes he was politically incorrect, but doesn’t have it in him. Their Christmas present from me: getting tagged in the facebook mention of this post. Thanks Rob, and Bob, and for you, in particular, Rob, don’t think you can get out of your newer friends finding out exactly what you are really like.

And if you knew Matthew, do as I do, and think of him every time you hear this one. And grin:



Barry Freed 12.21.16 at 9:04 am

That was a beautiful and moving remembrance Harry and had me choking up.

And this is very familiar:

Is it ridiculous to be shocked and saddened by a death that occurred so long ago to someone I wouldn’t have seen

I remember being taken aback and deeply saddened at a very similar situation.


Michael 12.21.16 at 10:11 am

Thank you for that, Harry. To memorialise acts of kindness is an act of kindness in itself.


Bill Benzon 12.21.16 at 1:18 pm

Is it ridiculous to be shocked and saddened by a death that occurred so long ago to someone I wouldn’t have seen anyway?

Not at all. Friendships are strange and, in a sense, exist outside of time. When I reconnect with someone I once knew well, but then nothing for years, it’s almost as though nothing had happened. Those intervening years just disappear. Leaning of an old friend’s death must be the same, except that there’s no reconnection. Only loss, and the very fact of your sadness affirms the connection that once was.


Alan White 12.21.16 at 3:22 pm

Thank you. This was a rare beautiful thing amid almost overwhelmingly ugly times.


William Timberman 12.21.16 at 3:32 pm

I’m of an age when this sort of thing — hearing of the death of someone known and liked many years ago — is becoming far too common. (Made more pointed, I suspect, by the realization that I may, rather sooner than later, become the object of similarly charitable reflections myself. Or so I might hope….)

I don’t do Facebook, but my friends do, and pass on the sad notifications. Whatever soullessness one can legitimately attribute to Mark Zuckerberg’s business model, he probably deserves a gold star in heaven for allowing us the opportunity now and then to indulge in a personal memento mori like this one of Harry’s. I can’t say it fully addresses the karmic balance, but it is encouraging.

And yeah, Harry, I’m glad you put this in a place where I could read it. Thank you.


CJColucci 12.21.16 at 5:06 pm

A touching story, but I have to ask if the student’s name really was Matthew Arnold or whether that is a pseudonym to protect his privacy?


Harry 12.21.16 at 6:06 pm

His name really was Matthew Arnold. Now I think about it, presumably the parents had a sense of humour (I have no recollection of his parents, or whether he had siblings). I felt using his real name after this time would be ok, and also good for people who knew him a school.


Maria 12.21.16 at 7:03 pm

Thank you, Harry.


Martin 12.21.16 at 8:46 pm

If I remember rightly after all this time he had a sister and his dad worked at Glaxo


Dr. Hilarius 12.21.16 at 9:41 pm

Thank you for your kindness then and your sharing of it now. It’s good to have non-ironic expression of feelings in this age of snark.


J-D 12.21.16 at 9:43 pm

A touching story, but I have to ask if the student’s name really was Matthew Arnold or whether that is a pseudonym to protect his privacy?

His name really was Matthew Arnold. Now I think about it, presumably the parents had a sense of humour

I was at school with Adam Smith. He’s a marine biologist now.


JanieM 12.22.16 at 4:10 am

Thanks for another great post, Harry.

I recently heard of the death of a high school classmate who took me to the prom, oh lord, almost fifty years ago. We hadn’t remained in touch and weren’t likely ever to see each other again. And yet — I felt it as a loss to hear that he was no longer in the world.


dr ngo 12.22.16 at 6:46 am

I have no touching memory of her – barely knew her – but in my high school class was an otherwise ordinary girl named Marilyn Monroe. Named before the famous MM (born Norma Jean Baker, IIRC) took on that name. Can’t have been easy for her.


LizardBreath 12.22.16 at 4:28 pm

I was also at school with Adam Smith, but I have no idea what’s happened to mine. I suppose it’s the sort of name where that’s not all that unlikely to happen.


divelly 12.22.16 at 5:06 pm

Classmate Craig Craig and daughter’s pediatrician Dr. Wahba Wahba,middle initial W.


dbk 12.22.16 at 8:03 pm

Lovely, moving post.

I recall two instances of this happening to me. A few years ago I did a search for my undergrad advisor, a professor of philosophy (ethicist). I knew where he’d gotten a position after not receiving tenure, and was curious about whether he was nearing retirement.

I discovered instead an APA announcement In Memoriam – he had died in 1977, before I’d even completed my MA. Even now I can scarcely believe it – I’m now thirty years older than he was when he passed.


TheSophist 12.22.16 at 8:14 pm

I sometimes have a cup of coffee with John Lennon (who is a few years older than I, and so was born in the late 1950s).


Kiwanda 12.22.16 at 9:35 pm

Thanks for the lovely remembrance.

What a thing it is, to be the new kid in some horrible place, but eventually, finally, to have a few friends there. I’ve remembered them fondly all my life.

I knew John Adams and Catherine Howard (well, maybe it was Katherine) in college.


Harry 12.22.16 at 10:31 pm

My friend Caroline, mentioned in the piece, was Parr (she’s been married well over 25 years, and has a different last name). We visited the school together 8 years ago, and one of the two teachers still there from our era ran up to us, thrilled, and greeted us as “Harry and Catherine” ,thus demonstrating that she remembered exactly who Caroline was. (I was impressed she recognized me, less so that she recognized my friend, who has aged less….!)


parse 12.24.16 at 12:39 am

Thanks for writing that.


JanieM 12.24.16 at 12:45 am

Hmmmm. Spam cleanup at #20?

Or is there something I’m missing……?


Harry 12.24.16 at 2:36 am

My mistake!


Michael Connolly 12.24.16 at 10:23 pm

Thank you. Like others, I was very saddened to learn of a high school chum’s demise almost two decades later, someone I thought of fondly and wondered about….


Fran 12.25.16 at 11:52 pm

My father was born in 1922 when he was ten years old he had a fight with a boy called Mark Silver on the way home from school. This was in the thirties in west end of Newcastle on Tyne- very poor place. Well apparently Mark got ill over the weekend pneumonia or something and by Monday when my dad went back to school he was dead. Which made my dad feel really bad although nothing to do with him and his ten year old fight at all.

But it stuck in his head enough to tell me and I remember the story and the boy’s name. Which ad he must have died in 1932 or thereabouts probably means I am the only person who remembers his existence. Because it really stuck in my dads head – and my dad has been dead for ten years on 30 December.

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