Belfast Telegraph

'Back to school' time still hits a raw nerve

As thousands of children start school for the first time this week, Malachi O'Doherty recalls his own rite of passage in a north Antrim classroom almost 60 years ago

The first time I started school was the worst. It was 1955, I was four years old and I was brought to the Cross and Passion Primary School in Ballycastle under false pretenses.

I was given to understand - or I had at least inferred - that this would be a one-off, a day different from any other before it, but which, once endured, need never be repeated.

I was led into a classroom full of howling children and got some intimation from the general atmosphere of terror that I was being drawn into a deeper trap than I had envisaged.

If they were all scared then, clearly, I should be scared too. So I cried with them.

My mother's participation in this plot against my childhood attachment to home then deepened.

"I won't be going away," she said. "I will be standing outside and, if you look out the window, you will see me." I should have recognised this as maternal dissembling.

When the nun in charge, robed like a circus clown of some kind, and as terrifying - clowns didn't scare you? - settled us in our little desks and our mothers withdrew, I reassured myself of my safety by looking out the window where I saw my mummy standing in the rain in her gaberdine coat.

That appeased my own terror. However, when I looked out again, she was gone.

I was on my own in a strange environment among many people I did not know. This was the first time in my life that I had felt cut off and lost and I did not like it.

That was the day I discovered that I was to be an autonomous individual in this world and that life would be hard, punctuated by separations.

The second time I started school was a year later in Belfast. The school building was the pavillion of the Casement Park gaelic football ground. I can still smell the damp concrete and urine.

This time I had already assimilated the horror of estrangement and could pity all the other little boys crying for their mummies, but there was a new horror for me: boys. There were no girls in our class.

The toilet-break was like a pissing contest. You got your shoes wet. Sometimes you even got your legs wet. And this was in the days of short trousers.

I realised that I had not learnt to assert myself through my body in a way that came natural to a lot of other boys. I would never be much good at fighting, or farting.

The third time I started school was when I went to secondary school, on the Glen Road in Belfast, with the Christian Brothers.

Starting there was exciting. Corporal punishment wasn't a big fear, because we'd got used to it in primary school where grown men saw no personal indignity for themselves in caning children.

There would be different teachers for different classes here, so if you feared one of them, you only had to endure him for 40 minutes, then he left and another one came in.

What bothered me most about the Brothers was being patronised by them. They taught us that we would have been lost without education if they had not come to rescue us and wanted us to be grateful for the favour.

It would have seemed in bad taste to mention that it was our own parents' taxes which were paying for this. It was our generation at this school which introduced initiation.

The school had just opened when I arrived as a first year, but the following year, the new intake looked so small and timorous to us that we dunked them down the toilet.

For years, I assumed that this was the normal induction into secondary school life; to be turned upside down, lowered into the toilet and have it flushed over you.

In fact, only the other day, I was asking a nephew if they still did it at his school and a woman in the company snapped: "No. Nowadays that's called bullying."

There were often big fights in the school yard and the fashion of the time was for winkle pickers, which were good for kicking a boy in the groin, and for scout belts which could be wrapped round the fist.

Yet I doubt if anyone was physically damaged, whatever trauma they might have sustained in their wee minds.

The fourth time I started school was at the Belfast College of Commerce in Hopefield Avenue, later absorbed by what is now the Metropolitan College.

This was much more to my taste. We had mixed classes again. Girls! I liked girls and girls liked me. And Protestants, who were fascinating.

There was a wonderfully liberal atmosphere. The teachers were lecturers and addressed us as 'Mr'. They let us smoke in class. One boy always had a can of beer with his lunch at his desk.

There were college parties that were borderline orgiastic. The only problem was that, by now, I was like a trained dog who could pass exams if he was scowled at and beaten, but had no internalised discipline. I failed in virtually everything.

A different kind of schooling would have delivered me into a different life. But I have been learning since.

Recently, on holiday in Ballycastle, I walked past the little Cross and Passion primary school where the passion of the nuns was the cross I had to bear.

To my own surprise, I winced at the sight of it.

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