Monday, November 16, 2020

School Days III: Scoil Caitríona, Glasnevin

After writing two posts about my primary school days, I'm impatient to move onto my secondary school experiences. Reminiscing is quite addictive.

My secondary school was called Scoil Caitríona (St. Catherine's School), and it was in Glasnevin rather than Ballymun. I took the bus in every day, but walked home. It was a school run by Dominican nuns, although they were already few in number by the time I came along, and most of our teachers were lay people. It had been a girl's school up until only a few years before, so that the senior years were still all-female in my first years there.

I went to Scoil Caitríona because most of my primary school class went there. I'm surprised I was so conformist, especially since I wasn't happy in primary school. My two eldest brothers had gone to a Christian Brothers school which was fairly savage, going by their stories. My two elder sisters went to Scoil Caitríona. So perhaps it was not so strange I went there.

I have a very vivid memory of my two sisters in their Scoil Caitríona uniforms, eating French toast for breakfast before heading to school. They seemed the picture of elegance and refinement, and French toast has ever since carried this association for me.

The uniform was a wine-coloured sweater, wine-coloured skirts for the girls, grey trousers for the boys (when they came along), and a light-blue shirt. I was very fond of these colours, but halfway through my time in Scoil Caitríona they were changed to navy and light-blue-- depressingly similar to my primary school uniform, and depressingly common as well. It was the students themselves who chose this. This uniform remains to this day, as I know from seeing kids commute to Scoil Caitríona now.

Scoil Caitríona had (and has) a long, long driveway into the school grounds. Walking this every day, twice a day, left quite an impression, and I still dream about it.

The school itself pleased my aesthetic senses hugely, and was a great improvement on my primary school. There were holy pictures and holy statues all around, and the classrooms were named after saints. The Dominican crest was worked into the linoleum in certain places, which seemed deliciously medieval to me. There was actually an upstairs, which there hadn't been in my primary school. To me this was very exotic, as I'd lived all my life in a three-bedroom flat, and stairs had not been a feature of my life at school or at home. (Setting aside the fact that I had to climb fourteen flights of stairs to reach my front door if the lift was broken, but that was different somehow.)

My primary school had been little more than an assembly hall, a set of class-rooms, a recreation yard, and a small kitchen. Scoil Caitríona seemed like a world unto itself in comparison. It had its own library, cafeteria, music room, art studio, carpentry room, and so forth-- much like the boarding schools I'd read about in books. It satisfied my life-long hankering for environments that are both self-contained and internally diverse-- environments such as the Starship Enterprise, or Hogwarts in Harry Potter, or Tar Valon in the Wheel of Time series.

A feature that gave me special pleasure were the wrought-iron, ornamental railings which ran along a long balcony-corridor above the assembly hall. I often found myself gazing up at these during study periods, since study periods were spent sitting at desks in the assembly hall. They took on an elusive symbolism for me. They seemed to symbolize, or to evoke, the rhythms of history, the underlying structure of culture and knowledge-- deep patterns which could only be beheld through study and through contemplation. When I looked up from my book, these railings seemed like an illustration of what I had been reading about, in this sense. Of course, this was only a vague impression, albeit a potent one-- indeed, it's an impression I've only managed to put into words right now.

I didn't do much study in my first year or so. Secondary school was a big culture shock, and I found myself flailing. In my first year, I was failing most of my examinations. I feared that I was stupid, that I'd managed to get by in the shallow end of the pool but that now I was going to drown in the deep end.

One of the things that pulled me out of this was a truly inspirational English teacher, the best teacher I ever had. Her name was Bríd, a variant of Brigid. She encouraged me to make an effort-- quite sternly, at times, but also through encouragement. I blossomed at English under her tutelage, and before too long she was reading out my assignments to the whole class as models.

Indeed, at one point she typed out an assignment I wrote on J.M. Synge's Riders to the Sea as an example for the entire year. I remember, the day she handed this out, walking out to the assembly hall at morning break, literally shivering with emotion. I had never had such a success in school and never believed it possible.

Bríd was not only an inspirational teacher in terms of encouraging my own writing, but also in terms of the window she opened onto literature. I had been a committed reader all my life, and I was reading well past my age-group before I came to secondary school. But it was in this teacher's class that I realized literature could be analysed-- that there was more going on under the surface than I'd ever guessed. I found this wildly exciting. Far from killing my spontaneous pleasure in reading (as analysis is sometimes accused of doing), it opened up new horizons, new vistas. I can remember English classes from this time in extraordinary detail, all these years later. I can remember the sense of excitement and discovery, like stepping onto a new continent.

But here I should mention something that has come into my mind often, as I write these posts-- something, indeed that has often occurred to me as I've looked back on my life. This sense of earliness, happily enough, is one that seems capable of constant renewal in a single lifetime. My first days in Scoil Caitríona seem strangely earlier than my last days in primary school; my first days working in the library seem earlier, or even "younger", than my last days in Scoil Caitríona. A good analogy is the last days of the Roman Empire compared to the early Middle Ages. Over the first there is an aura of decadence and weariness; the second is filled with a kind of child-like energy and naivety. I'm very grateful to have experienced such psychological and spiritual rebirths in my lifetime, and hope they never end.

I was always so grateful to Bríd that I'd long planned to send her a copy of my first book, if I ever got one published. When this indeed happened, I got her address from the school and sent it off to her, with a letter telling her how much she had helped me. I got a very nice reply, and I was very glad I'd did it.

It wasn't only English I improved at, though. In second and third year, I made more of an effort, and lifted myself out of my abysmal performance in first year. I was now a middling student at everything except English-- generally a C student, sometimes a B student, and just about hanging on by my fingernails when it come to my old adversary, Maths.

My upbringing was very fortunate in many ways, but it did not promote much self-discipline. It took a great effort to apply myself at school. Self-discipline is still something I struggle with today.

Our compulsory subjects were Irish, English, Maths, French, History, Religion, Physical Education, and Civics-- the last one taught by a particularly sour and cranky nun. The optional subjects I chose were German, Art, and Technology. 

I could no longer pretend to be the star pupil in Art class, as I had considered myself in primary school, due to the presence of at least two genuine prodigies. So I became less motivated to put my heart into it. In the last couple of years, however, I became more and more interested in art history, and even scored a perfect hundred per cent on one exam paper-- and not in a simple question and answer format, but in a discursive essay format.

When it came to Technology, I was a disaster. I could get by well enough as far as the academic part went, but actually making anything with my hands seemed impossible to me. The practical aspect was mostly carpentry, with a bit of soldering and circuit-making. Everything I made disintegrated, no matter how hard I tried. I eventually handed in my project for my Junior Certificate-- a state examination taken half-way through secondary school-- in a plastic bag, following the advice of the school principal. I don't even remember what it was supposed to be. Somehow I scraped a pass.

When it came to the Leaving Cert cycle-- the second three years-- Technology was no longer an option. I chose History instead, which had become an optional subject. I worked hard at History and always did fairly well. Our teacher was an eccentric lady who wore cowboy jackets and walked around and around the classroom. I always liked her as she took a laissez-faire approach, which suited me in that class.

I have one particularly vivid memory from History class. We were learning about Bismarck and the Franco-Prussian War. I looked out the window, at the school playing-field, and somehow it struck me powerfully that history was made of such material-- that the territories for which states and alliances went to war were, after all, made up of playing-fields and classrooms and such ordinary places. Suddenly, history no longer seemed remote, but immediate. I had a sense of the currents and streams of history being present in that very room, that very moment. This excited me greatly.

I enjoyed physical education as well, despite being poor at all games. We played badminton, volleyball, basketball, and a kind of hockey called Unihoc. We rarely played outdoors. Very occasionally we would play indoor soccer with a foam ball. I enjoyed PE so much I still dream about it. Strangely enough, the closest thing I've had to a mystical experience occurred during a volleyball game in school. It actually occurred twice, both during volleyball games. I seemed to pass into a kind of trance and suddenly came to myself moments later, but with a strange sense of bliss, bliss in the mere existence of the actual. And this despite the fact that volleyball was my least favourite game.

I did quite well in my Junior Cert, which was a state examination taken in third year (when I was fifteen), with external invigilators and other trappings of formality. In fourth year, we did something called the Transition Year. It was a new concept, and we were one of the first schools in the country to try it. The idea was that, for one year between the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate cycles, students would have an opportunity to pursue a more rounded education, less focused on exams and the syllabus.

Instead of studying the same subjects all year, we had "modules" of several weeks duration in a number of different subjects-- Spanish, home economics, music, and so on. We even started our own limited company, which sold homemade jewellery and some kind of fancy rope. I designed the logo for it.

We put on a drama that year, with the help of a professional actress. It was a Sean O'Casey play called the Halls of Healing. I took a minimal part in it, and humiliated myself by getting lost when trying to return from a class trip to the Abbey theatre. I got a lecture from both the principal and the actress for that. The funny thing is that, although at the time I hated the drama module, my memories from it are quite magical. Indeed, school dramas have always stirred my imagination more than visits to professional theatres. One production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in Scoil Caitríona, which was put on by another class, stands out especially in my memory.

Religious education in Scoil Caitríona was very poor. The only exception to this was first year, when an ancient and endearingly dotty nun taught us lots of solid Catholic stuff-- how to pray the rosary, the story of Maximilian Kolbe, Fatima, and stuff like that. After first year, there was very little Christian content in religion class. If was mostly pop psychology, touchy-feely stuff. We also watched a lot of movies which were supposed to be improving in some way or other. We saw Shadowlands, Love Story, Ironweed, Not Without My Daughter, The Killing Fields, On Golden Pond, Regarding Henry, and many others. Some of them did stick in my mind in the desired manner, but I wish we had learned more Catholic doctrine. The Catholic doctrine we did learn was muddled and confusing. I remember getting the message that homosexuality was OK so long as it stopped short of sex. On the other hand, the principal (a rather stern nun) did urge those who had a vote, in fifth class, to vote No in the referendum on divorce, making an argument on purely secular grounds. I was just too young to vote, though.

I was just as shy in secondary school as I was in primary school-- shyer, perhaps, as I had developed a complex about it. I had no friends, but from some point in my fourth year I did join in the informal soccer games which were played (for some reason) on the tarmac section of the playing fields.

Fourth and fifth year were the Leaving Cert cycle. I worked quite hard, although I found it harder to settle down to work the closer I came to the exams themselves. (In Ireland, Leaving Cert points determine college entry.) This almost became disastrous, and by the time the exams were upon me, I felt fatalistic about them. But I managed to pull it together at the end, and did creditably enough. I got a B in honours level Irish, German, French, History, and English. I was disappointed not go get an A in English, especially as I felt I'd done well in the exam. I got a C in honours Art. But the result in which I took most pride was the D that I scraped, with great effort, in pass level Maths.

The Leaving Cert is an incredibly stressful experience. I still very regularly have dreams that I'm about to sit it very soon, that I haven't prepared for it at all, and that I have months of work to catch up on.

I was sad to leave school. I hate endings of any kind. There was, to me, an unbearable melancholy hovering over the last weeks. The summery weather made it seem even more poignant, since it was by nature an Indian summer.

In one of my last English classes, the teacher-- a gorgeous young substitute who all the boys fell in love with-- wrote the keyword "transience" on the blackboard. I remember looking at it, seeing how the summer sun glowed on the chalk words, and having the strange sense that I was looking at the beautifully shimmering scales of some deadly snake. Transience has always seemed mysterious and haunting to me, and never more so than at that moment. It was hard to believe that this world, which had been mine for six years-- indeed, the whole world of school, which had been mine for more than twice as long-- would soon be gone forever, gone beyond all recall, as much a part of the past as ancient Egypt or ancient Greece.

Transience has disturbed me all my life, and much of my conservatism-- much of everything I do, including writing-- is a quest to overcome it, a quest for permanence.

Well, it is all gone now-- long gone, decades gone.

I went to college in the Dublin Institute of Technology, Aungier Street, studying journalism. By the time I was halfway through I realized I was not extroverted enough to be a journalist. Failing at this has weighed on me greatly ever since, so I don't feel like writing about my years there. Maybe in the future, if I have come to terms with it, I will.

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