Sunday, November 15, 2020

School Days (II)

I was rather critical, in my previous post, of the teacher who sent me home in my socks. Aside from him, however, I have nothing to complain about in any of my primary school teachers, as little as I liked school.

Pondering my first two years in school, "low babies" and "high babies", the most vivid memory that remains from them is the bright primary colours of the crayons and the educational toys we would play with between lessons. There were plastic shapes we had to slot into their places in a tray, plastic straws from which we built structures using round joints which looked like a ship's steering wheel, and so forth. When I remember these I am struck with a piercing nostalgia for early childhood, for all that was bright and simple about it.

A similar memory strikes me now; one of my classmates, in those first years, had a tartan thermos flask which impressed me very much. Tartan has ever since evoked, in my mind, all that is elegant, classy, refined, and traditional. (This despite the fact that I am more prejudiced against Scottish culture than drawn to it.) However, when I say "elegant", I mean a very particular sort of elegance; poor man's elegance, everyday elegance. I have always been drawn to things which are (in my opinion) somewhat refined and tasteful, but not in any way exclusive or expensive. For instance, the use of Victorian-style silhouettes on a shop sign; or a very ornamental pub mirror; or a cut-glass decanter which might be found in anybody's home. Or (to pass from the realm of the physical to the cultural) a phrase from Shakespeare or Yeats that is quoted by a housewife or a bus driver. 

My own upbringing can best be described as "cultured working class", and I feel very protective of this environment, this worldview. It's not a second-best to me; the combination of the humble and the elegant is actually my ideal, the atmosphere that pleases me the most. 

Sometimes I take a Christmas tree as the symbol of this. Every Christmas tree is elegant, even the gaudy ones; and the thing that pleases me most about every Christmas tree is knowing that it is as common as the air, knowing that every home in every street in every town has its own Christmas tree. I'm not much of a Walt Whitman fan, but one line from Leaves of Grass has always spoken to me: "By God, I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms".

All that from a tartan thermos flask...

I was always a mediocre student, in both primary and secondary school, despite making a reasonable effort. In both cases, however, I had a particular subject in which I shone. In secondary school it was English. In primary school it was art. I was precocious when it came to drawing, especially the human face and figure. In my own mind, I was top of my class at art. I would anxiously monitor the drawings and paintings of my classmates, for evidence that anyone was catching up on me. Once, when a new girl (upon I had an enormous crush, which lasted several years) was put sitting next to me, she said: "I get to sit beside the artist and see how he draws"-- I'm rather surprised I didn't pass out at this point, such was my euphoria.

(Although I was good at drawing faces, I always struggled to draw the faces of girls and women, since my lines tended towards angularity. This vexed me greatly and I spent a long time looking at the female faces in my comics, wondering why the comic-book artists could draw women, but I couldn't. It seemed mysterious to me.)

Roald Dahl was virtually the writer-in-residence at my school. I remember teachers reading us James and the Giant Peach, the Twits, the Witches, and several of his poems. I can't remember if they read us any others. I enjoyed them as much as the rest of my class seemed to, judging by their reactions-- very often delighted squeals at the passages of black humour.

I was a complete loss at sports. I would habitually come last in races. I remember the headmaster (yes, the same chap who sent me home in my socks) urging me, in an exasperated tone, to "run faster" at one practice session for our school sports day. This seemed very unreasonable to me, since I was obviously running as fast as I could. I did, however, come in second in a wheelbarrow race in my last sports day.

I dutifully went along to hurling training, and to matches, but never got more than a few minutes' action as a substitute towards the end of games. I seem to remember hitting the sliotar (ball) once, and only once, during competitive play. On one occasion the teacher praised me to the rest of the team because I never stopped moving. I felt ambivalent about the praise, since I knew it was an A for effort, not any sort of achievement.

All the same, my experience of school sports has made me disagree with conservatives who mock the "participation ribbon" culture. I don't actually demand that "all must have prizes", which seems a step too far. But surely the meaningful participation of the weaker children-- in whatever activity-- is more important than the school's prestige, or any victory on the day? Surely even a poor athlete such as myself could have been given more than five minutes on the playing field every now and again, without fatally injuring the quest for excellence? Children take these things to heart.

(When I saw the 2005 remake of the Bad News Bears, and it came to a scene where the school baseball coach-- who has been relentlessly competitive up to this moment, but who has a sudden change of heart-- orders one of his weakest players onto the field towards the climax of the final game, deciding that this is more important than winning, I couldn't hold back tears.)

Despite being so bad at sports, I never turned against them, or took refuge in anti-sports snobbery, as many bookish children are wont to do. I'm grateful for that. In fact, physical education was one of my favourite subjects in secondary school, although I had become no more athletic by then. (I did develop into a rather formidable defender in kickabout soccer, in the recreation yard, but we rarely played soccer in PE. And that still lay ahead of me in primary school, at any rate.)

The only exception to my pitiful performance at sports was one indoors game we played on only a few occasions. I think the teacher called it "Chinese football", but I'm guessing it was a game she invented. In any case, it didn't involve feet. We played it in the assembly hall, with a very light soccer-sized ball, and a goal at either end. Everyone was on their knees, and could only move in short bursts. The ball was thrown. For some reason, I excelled at this, and scored a ridiculous amount of goals.

Although we were supposed to speak Irish all the time, we inevitably spoke English as soon as we were out of the teacher's hearing. Indeed, anyone who tried to speak Irish except when there was a teacher listening would, I'm sure, have been regarded as an intolerable goody-two-shoes. Not that I ever tried myself. I didn't talk much at all, in any language. I would usually spend break-times wandering around the yard, thinking or reading or making up my own stories. I never had friends all through my school years. I was horrendously shy. There was a continuous handball game amongst the boys, in the later years, but I only joined in once or twice.

The end of every week was marked by a school assembly where we had bingo and the Comórtas Gaeilge-- the Irish competition. For this, we were divided into different teams, which had a range of different ages, and we had to self-report how much Irish we spoke at different times during the week, including walking home from school, and at home. If we didn't speak to anyone while walking home, we were told to report which language we were thinking in. The prizes for bingo were a small Mars bar and a big Mars bar; the prize for the Comórtas Gaeilge was a Toffifee sweet each for the winning team. (Wikipedia describes these as a German brand of caramel candy, in case you don't know.) I think kids took the Comórtas Gaeilge seriously at first but, over time, the older ones grew increasingly ironic about it. In any case, I liked these school assemblies as they gave some ceremony to the end of the school week. I also wanted a Toffifee.

I can remember our first history lesson, when I was in third class-- I would have been eight or nine-- was about the process (and sequence) of human decomposition, which seemed macabre to me even then. When we made a class trip to the National Museum, I was frightened by the exhibits-- frightened at how old they were. The solemnity of the place had a long lasting effect on my imagination, though. (This was before museums became glowing, dancing, interactive places.)

We had religious education from an early stage. In second class, I remember drawing a picture of the Last Supper in which Jesus and the apostles were all old and wrinkled. We had been hearing the Gospel story for so long, by then, that I assumed they must all be elderly by that stage. Generally speaking, my primary school religious education was better than my secondary school religious education-- even though the latter was a Dominican school.

On the whole, the things I remember most fondly about school-- both primary and secondary-- were the "grace notes", the extracurricular aspects. 

One day, in fifth class, our teacher told us all to be absolutely quiet for a little while and to listen out for all the sounds we normally missed-- traffic in the distance, the ticking of a clock, the tapping of pipes, and so on. This really stirred my imagination. I think the frame of mind she induced in that one lesson is, essentially, the frame of mind in which we experience poetry-- a spirit of attentiveness, of perceiving what is always there,  but what we generally miss.

I also enjoyed Irish set dancing lessons. We had them very regularly in the assembly hall, and I had not yet reached the age when boys become self-conscious about dancing. I found them quite exhilarating. One famous set dance is called The Walls of Limerick, and it pleased me that something as kinetic as a dance should be named after something stationary (although I obviously would not have been able to articulate this pleasure at the time).

We put on a performance of A Christmas Carol in fourth class, when I would have been ten. I had a single line-- "You're a rich man, aren't you, Scrooge?"-- and I somehow managed to forget it. Nevertheless, the whole process is a happy memory for me. Although we had no scenery or costumes-- it was very informal-- I was beguiled by the magic of drama, of story.

Class discussions always appealed to me, too. If I was ever inclined to speak up during class, it would be during these, and I was always disappointed when they ended

The Dublin Millennium year was celebrated in 1988-- fifth class, when I was ten or eleven. We painted a mural of Viking Dublin on a large canvas board in the assembly hall, with help from a professional artist, and made a cardboard model of medieval Dublin that took on a life of its own and grew to monstrous proportions. It had to be discarded eventually. 

Aside from the headmaster in first class, my only other male teacher was in my final year. He was universally regarded as the cool teacher. He had a beard, wore jeans, and played the guitar. He got us to sing along on songs like "Whiskey in the Jar" and "The Circle Game" by Joni Mitchell. (The latter, a melancholy song about ageing and the passage of time, depressed me greatly. I don't think children should be taught such songs and regret that I encountered this one so young.)

It was in this teacher's class that I first learned about Russian communism-- just before the Soviet Union collapsed. When he used the term "roubles", I imagined little red glass spheres (by association with rubies, of course). Somehow, this idea stayed in my head for years, and I was disappointed when I learned that roubles were ordinary banknotes.

When this teacher came to teach us about the Ten Commandments, I remember my classmates pestering him to explain what adultery was-- a commandment he wanted to skip over. They were, of course, simply trying to embarrass him, but he did eventually give a discreet explanation. He was the one, a little later, who taught us sex education. The boys and girls were separated for this. I can't remember many specifics about it, or how explicit it was. I do remember him reassuring us that most of what we heard about sex from our peers was "just talk"-- comments such as "I wouldn't mind a bit of that", for instance. As soon as he walked out of the room, there was much hilarity over this example, which (I learned) was what one of the boys had said about some female visitor to the school-- obviously within earshot of a teacher.

My brothers also had this teacher, during their time in the school, and we all remember his propensity for cautionary tales. As one of my brothers once put it, it was a dangerous business to be his friend-- so many of them featured in his horror stories. At Halloween he told us about a friend of his who had blown off several fingers while trying to make fireworks. There were many such tales. I can remember his very last words before the Christmas holidays were: "Be careful. Christmas can be a very dangerous time". Even as a child I found this amusing.

He had a flair for teaching history, especially Irish history. I remember one lesson ending with a kind of trailer or cliff-hanger: "Next time we'll be talking about one of the greatest scandals in Irish history" (the fall of Parnell). I relished the drama of that.

Towards the end of our final year, he took us on a trip into the city centre-- "into town", as the Irish say. (My American wife says "downtown".) While we were there, he stopped to have a conversation with somebody who looked like he was on the verge of homelessness. "That man is one of the most brilliant minds in the country", he told us when he had moved on.

Every year, sixth class would enter a drama and music competition called the Slogadh (Slo-ga), and this teacher would write the play. In my year, it was a musical play about the destruction of the ozone layer. I was one of the extras-- or, perhaps it's better to say, a member of the Greek chorus. We played zombie-like people of the future, wearing rags and sporting burnt skin. (Did we wear rags? We wore strips of some kind of red gauzey fabric. Perhaps it was all we could wear in the unbearable post-ozone layer heat.)

We rehearsed that play so often I can still remember a few of the lyrics. One song took the melody from "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina". We won the competition, which was held in Ennis, Co. Clare. We stayed overnight in the dormitory of a girl's school, which was beside a graveyard. The headmaster jokingly threatened to make anyone who was "bold" (the usual Irish term for naughty-- "dána", in Irish) sleep in an empty dormitory immediately overlooking the cemetery. My night and morning in this dormitory had a powerful effect on me, but I know I have written about it on this blog before.

I've said I was a mediocre student. When it came to maths, however, I was a very poor student. Maths was the bane of my schooling, all fourteen years of it. The multiplication tables were a particular ordeal. I simply couldn't understand the abstract realm of numbers. I dreaded maths every day and felt enormous relief when it was over.

Only once did I do well at maths. This was in our final year, when the teacher let us dip our toes into Venn diagrams, and set us a problem on the blackboard, offering twenty pence to the winner. The problem seemed trivially simple to me, but I kept my mouth shut, since answer after answer from my classmates turned out to be wrong. How could I be right when all the kids who were good at maths were wrong? And yet, when I eventually mustered the courage to speak up, I won the twenty pence. I still don't understand this episode.

I realize that I've barely mentioned my female teachers, despite the fact that I only had male teachers for two of my eight years in primary school. I remember my female teachers as patient and gentle, but I suppose they were more self-effacing than the men, since I have fewer memories attached to them. I did fall in love with one of them, a younger woman called Eileen. She had dark hair and played the uileann pipes-- a bit like bagpipes but played with one's elbows. I remember feeling horribly embarrassed, on the last day of school, when my mother gave me a rose to bring her. I expected her to laugh at me. Of course, she was delighted, so it wasn't so bad after all.

One day, when we had a cake sale, I had no money to buy a cake. Eileen took me outside of the class, gave me two pounds, and told me to repay her when I was thirty. Although I realized she was joking, I always intended to do so-- but, of course, I forgot all about it when I was thirty, and only remembered long afterwards.

School memories could be prolonged indefinitely. I feel like I am leaving too much out, but I fear tiring the reader. I will move onto secondary school in my next post-- knowing, of course, that we never really "move on" from any phase of our lives, and that a shadow of me still haunts Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch.


  1. My own similar lack of interaction at lunchtimes came to mind recently when I saw a girl from a family of four strolling around muttering to herself for quite a while, while her parents, two brothers and sister were conversing. It actually looks extremely unsettling when it's someone else doing it.
    Walls of Limerick might be one that we did in St Peter's (Phibsboro). I can remember the boy opposite me having gum on his fingers

  2. (actually, it's a different one: we had to hold both hands in the one I remember)

    1. I don't remember the details of the dance at all. Sometimes I look into school playgrounds and everybody seems to be fully involved and interacting so I've never seen myself "from outside" like that.