The school that our children go to is very different to the one my generation attended. I was in school from 1980 till 1993 and even though beatings were outlawed; aggression, sneering and sarcasm were not.
Primary school was fine for me as I enjoyed learning and didn’t find the work too difficult, with the exception of Irish. I have looked back with rose-tinted glasses and actually used the phrase “best days of my life”. It is only since my son started primary and I see the changes in teaching methods and attitudes that I now look back on my days with disbelief and some black humour of course.
I went to an all girls catholic school that my Mam had gone to. She had nothing but hatred for the place so I presume she sent me there as some kind of social experiment. She told me one night after a few drinks and a lot of preamble that she’d been made to stay back a year because she couldn’t recite the creed (Apollo? I’m nearly sure this was pre-Rocky and I don’t know of any other Creed?). The nun flipped as a glitch in her mind-control exercise was exposed and inflicted maximum punishment. The unbelievable thing is the shame she still carries as an adult for this ridiculous “crime”. I know I’ll get a phone call after publishing this giving out that I’ve exposed her darkest secret. It’s not Prince of Tides Mam, move on.
It hadn’t changed much from her days interior design wise with dark mahogany and little sunlight. The desks still had a hole for an ancient inkwell and if you were unlucky enough to get a backless one, you’d spend the school year picking your books up off the floor. There were large religious statues and iconography everywhere and strangely enough some what I think in hindsight were Salvador Dali prints that slipped by the censors. There was one near the junior classes of a little naked woman in a cage that we would point at and giggle.
We were lucky that nuns were a dying breed at this stage and there was only a handful.. the principal, Sr. Marcelina, stayed ensconced in her office mostly, emerging only at lunch to lean on the frame of our classroom door and blink repeatedly while berating us for speaking. There was Sr. Sibena, a cranky, portly little nun that was spotted more than once in the local off-licence. Then there was Sr. Catherine, tall and manly who was famous for picking her nose. Rumour had it she flicked it right into the mouth of a student once, but that’s hearsay. They sound exaggerated like Roald Dahl characters but they existed. I didn’t have the pleasure of their teaching but had two run-ins with Sibena…(did we nickname her ribena? I hope so).
She visited our decrepit first class prefab bi-weekly for knitting. I’m one of those tight, sweaty knitters whose needles squeak and wool is damp. She was walking up and down behind us observing our progress (may I state that we were 7). I dropped a stitch and she smacked me across the back of my head and the knitting went flying. That night my Mam got it out of me with her gestapo methods and I begged her not to say anything but next knitting class there was a knock on the door. My Mam was all smiles and said, “Sr, may I have a word?” It all looked civilized to me and Sr Sibena was profuse (and shaky) in her apology when she returned. Turns out my Mam was only short of pinning her against the wall and told her she’d had to endure that kind of bullshit (I’m paraphrasing, may have been an F bomb) when she attended by her lot (said something derogatory about nuns, possibly using dried up and in need of a good something) and she wouldn’t stand by and let it happen to her daughter. If anyone was hitting me up-side the head, she was and not a stranger. She had that scary Mam smile the whole time and an air of Tony Soprano that I’d say had Sabina running to the offy that afternoon. Another time she caught me drawing a Xmas tree on my notebook just before we broke for holidays. She held it above her head by the corner as if she’d found hardcore porn and shouted “Idling is the devil’s tool” to the class. A fucking Christmas tree!
The teachers weren’t much better. I won’t name them as some are still alive and probably working for the Iona Institute and we all know how litigious that lot are. Back to first class and I had and have strangely flexible legs for one so short and unfit and like to sit in hippy-like contortions. One day the teacher roared FREEZE for no reason at all and we were all frozen in our seats, unaware of what had happened but nervous nonetheless… she patrolled our desks and found me sitting with my legs folded under me. I was made an example of and shamed.. I’m unsure why she was upset, perhaps because she was a tub of lard and would have induced a deep vein thrombosis in this position.. again I’m speculating. I spent the rest of my school career prepared for another freeze and possibly my adult life.
Third class and the shit hit the (non working) fan. We had a teacher who I still believe could have been a man pretending to be a woman for the job, like Tootsie or Mrs Doubtfire but without the glamour and niceness. To my 9 year old self, she resembled a “woman” whom life had continually disappointed her… a last minute jilt at the alter, Bobby Ewing choosing Pam, missing out on a job with the KGB. She had a hatred of bad handwriting and segregated the class into good and bad handwriters. I was a bad handwriter, very bad; I still have trouble deciphering something I’ve written myself but my Mam placated me saying doctors are the worst. I can still see the list she nailed (blue-tacked) to the wall as proud as Martin Luther and his 95 theocrats. My name had many stars after it, not good ones, black evil ones.
I’m not sure why but I had been signed up to school lunches, my mother must have been delusional as at home I lived on a staple diet of marmalade sandwiches, crackers and minestrone cup of soups. I may get this wrong but Wednesday and Friday were currant bun days (everyone got excited for these disgusting “cakes” until a mouse hopped out of the bag one day) Monday and Thursdays were corn beef sandwiches (more jelly and gritty stuff than meat) and the other day was cheese ( a substance I would not have eaten even if served by Michael J. Fox holding a care bear). The milk was my main issue but you had to be ingenious hiding unwanted lunch. We were made to write our number (yes we were all assigned a number from the role book at the start of the year, a nod to previous successful childcare institutions like Auschwitz) on a folded up part of the carton. I had used the outside postbox for some disposal but one carton I hid somewhere in the jacks. Possibly a week had passed and Mrs Cowfire called me to the top of the class. She then pulled said carton of milk from her desk like a magician and brandished it about asking what was the meaning of it. I tried to stammer that I didn’t like milk but she was foaming at the mouth at this stage. “Drink it” she said calmly. “But it’s old…” “Drink it!” I took a sip of the lumpy grossness and started gagging, I may have puked but my recollection ends there as does any chance I ever had of liking milk.
4th, 5th and 6th class we had the same teacher who we all loved and I always looked back fondly on till a latecomer to our class and a still-friend put me straight. Orla had come from a “normal” mixed school to our class when she was 10 or 11. She was terrified by our stepford class and how we would all answer in unison and be willing to rat each other out just for the glory. She spoke very quietly and when she would answer a question we would all chant “we can’t hear you” while teacher looked on smugly. She would then be made to go outside the door and answer the question from the other side. When the teacher asked a question we would become rabid in our fanaticism. We’d leave our desks and all swarm hers saying “teacher, teacher, teacher teacher” while waving our hands in her face. She once picked me and I had no idea of the question, I was just caught up in the adulation and frenzy.
There were so many undiagnosed kids back then, possibly dyslexic, spectrum, ADHD and all sorts of learning difficulties and they were ridiculed primarily by the teachers. We can all remember a teacher calling someone’s name to read and thinking “oh fuck this is going to be painful”. The poor kid would stammer through their reading with no prompt or help at all. We did have a learning support teacher but we had no understanding of why she was carting these poor kids off and branded them as stupid and not as needing a little extra help.
When it all got too much for our stressed out, patience-less wardens/ cult leaders they retired to the staff room, a place of mythical legends where no student dared to tread. If you had to knock at the door and it had better be a good reason like someone had fallen into a coma or a skirt had been pulled up, you would be enveloped in a thick cloud of nicotine that would have you high for the day and more than a little asthmatic.
Individuality and creativity were not nurtured in school at this time. As we got older and our Stockholm Syndrome took hold, we became “big girls”… the name you were given in 6th class, lucky we were immune to patronising. We made sure the younger ones didn’t speak during lunch; we enforced invisible barriers between yards and told on anyone who may have pulled up skirts in the yard.
There are many differences in schools today, mainly that sadistic teachers know they would be filmed on the kid’s mobile phone, shamed on social media and then sacked. Teachers are generally lovely and although overwhelmed try to do their best by each child.
Learning supports are done more subtly now with kids even feeling jealous of my son being taken out for some Wii time when he’s getting antsy. There still isn’t much room for individuality and I get that. Most classes are at the 30+ mark and having everyone toe the line and recite as one makes things run more smoothly.
I do like the positive vibe I get from my son’s school though and he seems happy. He’s rewarded with stars and praised when he does well and this is the main difference in 30 years. I find it difficult to remember any praise in primary bar the comments relayed back by my Mam after a positive parent-teacher meeting, the teachers in their Irishness found it difficult to praise you to your face. It is much easier for me to remember the negative things and still identify as a bad handwriter, shit at Irish and crappy hider of food.
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