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As children in Northern Ireland prepare to start school we reflect on lessons to last a lifetime

As children across Northern Ireland prepare to start primary school or make the move to secondary school, writers Mairia Cahill and Alex Kane reflect on the lessons they learnt

Published 27/08/2015

Class act: Mairia Cahill in her school days
Class act: Mairia Cahill in her school days
Alex and dad
Alex Kane as a schoolboy

I don't remember walking into my primary school on my first day, so it must have been uneventful. I do remember playing in the Wendy house, and I can still hear the general noise of children busying themselves and then the strange feeling when our teacher Mrs Green sat us all down, trying to control the noise level by getting us to put our fingers on our lips. Just as I can still picture myself showing off my new black patent shoes as she lined us up to go to the toilet, and the mark they made on the rubber tiles if you skimmed them on their side.

It was the mid-Eighties, and I recall my father picking me up and a Genesis track playing on the car radio as I excitedly filled him in on meeting my new-found friends. My memories of primary school are vividly happy - Holy Child in Belfast was a great school. Other memories which were not so great were of the warm milk with a scum of cream on top, which was delivered to us in mini glass bottles which the teachers insisted we drank, and of the old flip wooden desks, that had been there from when the school was built, still with the holes for ink wells, with wood that nipped your fingers if you closed them too sharply.

There's a faded photograph of me standing in my neighbour's garden on my first day of secondary school, my blazer drowning me as I stand with the sun in my eyes looking apprehensively at the camera. I didn't know what to expect, and the move from primary to secondary was a shock which took some time getting used to, such as going from having one teacher to having several a day, each one with their own preferences on how we, as pupils, should behave.

Some were stricter than others, and, while we all tried individually to find our place in the pecking order of our peers, we were universally bonded in dislike for the stricter ones. There was that feeling of apprehension as our entire year was lined up in the study hall of St Dominic's in Belfast that first morning for assembly and assigned a form teacher. And the relief we felt when you discovered a face from primary had ended up in the same class as you. Going from being the oldest in a school, to being the youngest was a scary experience, but the school made this easier with prefects who were assigned to look after us. Within the first few weeks, those awkward feelings of being new faded as we grew used to the routine, and switched our attentions to remembering homework deadlines instead.

And schoolbags. Who doesn't remember straining under the weight of shiny new textbooks, and the scramble to find paper to back them with. And the feeling of accomplishment when each one was finally done, tucked back into the schoolbag carefully along with the new pencil case, compass and protractor (that in the end was only ever used once a year.) The itch of the socks, and the requirement for indoor sandals and outdoor shoes, which thankfully, was phased out in my first few years.

St Dominic's was a convent school, and each of the classrooms were named after saints that most of us had never heard of. The library was named after St Louis Bertrand, and within the beautiful grounds of the building is a graveyard for the nuns who lived among the school community at the convent next to the inbuilt chapel.

We managed to have our fair share of fun in the first few years, and with no pressure of exams, we concentrated on experiencing new things instead - from Bunsen burners to learning how to dissect rats, to rowdy netball and hockey matches, and the wonder of having a geography teacher that we could deflect on to any subject for the entire period just by asking one question. Craic abounded.

If you're starting school, it may be daunting at first as you walk into the unknown, to a much larger building than you've been used to. You may feel out of place. Making new friends can be a scary business.

I can still feel my face burning with shyness as I started on my first day. But, once you pass that hurdle, and realise that everyone else is in the same boat as you, it becomes much easier. Give it time, bring a book. If you feel out of place you can use that to escape to until you settle in. And, you will settle. In a few weeks time you'll wonder what there was to be so scared of.

All things considered, my school memories are happy ones - I learned a lot there, and it was a world away generally from the conflict outside. My young daughter is starting primary one in a few weeks, and is beside herself with excitement. I'm confident she will enjoy it as much as I did."

Alex Kane (60) is a political  commentator. He lives in east Belfast with his partner Kerri and their two daughters, Megan and Lilah-Liberty. He says:

I remember my first day at primary school. It was September 1963 and I was eight. I had missed the first few years because I needed to do a lot of catching up after my adoption in 1961. And there are two reasons I remember that day. The first was that I met a teacher, Mr McCartney, who was to be one of the key influences of my life. He knew my background and he knew that I needed confidence and stability. Over the next few years, he kept an eye on me and it's thanks to him that I passed my 11-plus.

The other thing I remember from that first day was the basket-making class. I was given a bundle of whicker, a piece of hardboard, a jam jar full of coloured beads and told to do what the girl beside me was doing. I did exactly what she was doing: yet, while she ended up with a delightful present for her mother I ended up with a wobbly, lopsided disaster which my mother kept on the top shelf of the larder for the next 20 years. I still hate craftwork of any kind.

In September 1967, I transferred to the Royal School, Armagh. My father dropped me off at a side entrance and told me to go through a gate a few hundred yards away, down a smaller lane on the left.

About 50 yards along I met an older boy leaning against a wall. He asked me if I was new and when I said yes, told me to go to a red-brick house belonging to the headmaster, he said - further on up, knock the door and ask for Mr Pootlestick. It made sense to me at the time. Mr Pootlestick turned out to be an old woman without a sense of humour.

Anyway, the school just seemed enormous to me. What struck me most that first day, was the first year boarders. They looked so small, particularly since most of them, as was I, were in clothes that were two sizes too big. Having been in an orphanage, I couldn't understand why any parent would choose to send their children away from them - and I still don't. I also remember being a little spooked for most of that day. The Mr Pootlestick incident had made me wary of believing anything any of the older boys said to me, meaning that I had a series of run-ins with those bizarre creatures known as prefects. The "masters" were even scarier, because in those days they still wore the flapping black gowns and mortar boards and looked as though they had flown down from some enormous nests in the trees dotted around the school grounds.

It took me a while, too, to get used to being addressed by my surname. "What's your name?" "Alex." "No, your real name?" "It was Alex when I was adopted, so I think it's always been Alex." "What are you on about? What's your last name?" "Oh. Kane." "Well, there isn't an O'Kane on my list, go and try one of the other registration desks." I had to go back to him about half-an-hour later and explain that I was "just Kane". He turned out to be my House Master and, seven years later, on my last day, shook my hand and said "Goodbye just Kane".

I know it's a cliche to say that schooldays are the happiest days of your life, but my seven years at the Royal School were wonderful years. Those were the years I found myself and began some friendships that have lasted almost 50 years. Yes, I remember the outsize clothes on that first day, the huge pile of books that had to be crammed into a bag that broke on the way home, the lunchtime prunes that looked like flambeed boke and the sight of a sobbing boarder standing at a window as the rest of us went home.

That first day was a good day. So good, in fact, that I'd love to turn back the clock and relive it. This time, though, I'd wave at that sobbing boarder and shout up, 'I'll see you tomorrow'."

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