Friday, November 13, 2020

School Days

I have been reading biographies of various writers recently, and I've noticed something interesting. At least three well-known writers-- C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, and George Orwell-- wrote scathing accounts of their schools, which other former pupils insisted were very unfair and distorted.

It made me wonder why I've never written an account of my schooldays, since I've written everything else. Here goes. I'm not going to do a Lewis, Dahl or Orwell as my schools were all fairly good, even if I was mostly unhappy at them.

All of my schooling was in Irish language schools, a fact I appreciate now, but didn't back then.

My earliest schooling was in a school called St. Ciaran's in Glasnevin. Actually this was the school temporarily playing host to my own school, Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch, while our own school was being built. I'm not sure how the arrangement worked exactly, or whether the school had pupils of its own.

Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch means "School of the Seven Heroes", referring to the seven signatories of the 1916 Rising. (The seven towers in Ballymun were also named after them.) It was set up by parents in Ballymun and was unusual, at that time, for not being run by the Catholic Church, although all the religious instruction was Catholic, and Sunday Mass (through Irish) was held in its assembly hall at one point.

But I am jumping ahead. What I remember of Scoil Ciaran's was the darkness of the classrooms and the ferocity of the recreation yard. I doubt it was at all ferocious, but it seemed so to me, as I was a very timid and shy child. I found it hard to walk from one end to another without being knocked over by some racing child or other. I can remember succeeding in this one day and feeling a huge sense of accomplishment.

One day I had a pair of "spectacles" made from an egg-box that someone from my family had made me. A boy in my class begged me to let him wear them. I was reluctant as I thought he'd break them. He did, though not on purpose.

Another time I can remember several of us watching two birds on a wall and chanting the rhyme: "Two little dickie birds". The birds obliged us by following the actions of the chant exactly, to my amazement.

This was the time of Benny Hill's popularity-- a TV comedian noted for slapstick and sexual innuendo. The latter was completely over my head, but I had perfected one of his funny walks, or some approximation of it. I remember two boys in my class, brothers, were so amused by this they harassed me to do it over and over again.

There were two pictures in the classroom which stick in my mind. One was a large framed photograph of John Paul II. He looked benevolent and rugged to my eyes. Another, which had a much greater effect on me, was a picture of a field of corn. This to me has ever after been a symbol of wholesomeness, spiritual health, rootedness, and the joy of the ordinary. Although I am a city boy who can barely tell one tree or bird from the other, I've always had a sense that the rural is spiritually and culturally superior.

We moved to our new school before I had spent a year in Scoil Ciaran. (We must have, as I was still in "low babies". In Ireland, junior infants is "low babies" and senior infants is "high babies".) I remember us sitting in the assembly hall listening to a talk on fire safety in the new building. The speaker warned us of the danger of death in such-and-such a situation and I can remember feeling appalled that children could actually die.

The first Star Wars film was released the year I was born and the trilogy was still riding its first wave of popularity. I remember it was so omnipresent-- in terms of toys, books, etc.-- that our teacher had to correct us on Darth Vader's name. We all called him Dark Vader, naturally enough. I also remember one of my classmates staring obsessively at a picture of Princess Leia in Jabba the Hutt's cage.

We were allowed to speak English in low babies and high babies, but from first class onwards we were expected to speak only Irish. I remember feeling so intimidated by this that I decided I wouldn't speak at all. In fact I spoke very little all through school as I was extremely shy and withdrawn.

In first class we had our first male teacher. I always preferred women teachers. He was the headmaster and was loud and somewhat brash-- from a Cork Gaeltacht. Here I am in danger of falling into the same trap as Orwell and the others. I know this fellow is not a bad chap, he rallied to help my family when my mother died many years later, giving us a loan of a water boiler to make tea for the wake, among other things. I've had a few friendly adult interactions with him. And yet, he sent me to walk home in my socks one day and that still rankles with me.

This is how it happened. We were obliged to wear slippers in class in order to protect the carpets; we would remove our shoes and put them in wooden slots, purpose-built for this, at the front of the class. One day I had forgotten some book or other and this teacher sent me home to get it. I was trying to change into my shoes but he was so irritated and impatient with me that he hurried me out the door while I was still in my socks. He must not have noticed I was still in my socks, as strange as it seems, or perhaps I was too timid to point it out. (Why didn't my classmates, who were watching? I don't know.) I made my way home until two women, passing by, asked me why I was wearing no shoes. I explained the matter, upon which they marched me back into my classroom and berated the teacher in front of the whole class. It was striking to see how, after having been such a terrifying presence moments before, he completely collapsed before them. I've never been able to warm to him since, water boiler or no water boiler. He's retired now. God bless him. It must be hard to be a teacher.

On another occasion, he drew a kind of grid on the blackboard, in marker, and was subsequently surprised that he couldn't wipe it off. He made strenuous efforts to do so. Impractical as I am, I was surprised he would make such a mistake, even at that age.

We had free lunches at this school. We were given a small carton of milk, a choice of a corned beef or cheese sandwich, and a bun. There must be some innate prejudice against institutional food in the human spirit, because I remembered realising with surprise, many years later, that the buns were actually quite nice-- after years of eating them reluctantly. Not so the sandwiches-- the butter tasted funny and there was too much gelatinous stuff in the corned beef.

One of the parts of school I enjoyed the most was the "teilgóir", or overhead projector. We always seemed to use this first thing in the morning, and it was particularly atmospheric on dark winter mornings. The curtains would be pulled and the slides would be projected on the screen. The only slides I can remember were scenes from Irish mythology, but I'm sure there were others. The glowing, frozen image on the screen, coupled with the darkness in the room, always gave me a deep sense of solemnity, wonder, and being somehow outside of ordinary time.

It has become obvious to me that one blog post is not going to be adequate to this subject. I'll have to come back to it.

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