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How our children's first school day brought memories flooding back


John (left) on the left of his brothers Paul (centre) and Gerry on his first day
John (left) on the left of his brothers Paul (centre) and Gerry on his first day
Daddy’s girl: Soley Laverty on her first day at school
Father and daughter prior to the big day
Leona as a child

Two writers reflect on the moment they approached the school gates for the first time, and what had changed by the time their own children entered Primary One.

John Laverty: ‘Granny Conway was grateful to the father of Liam Neeson for tending to her injured leg’

It was a day Granny Conway would never forget. She wasn’t really my granny, rather my granny’s friend (close enough) and “a great help wi’ the wains”.

She would certainly be invaluable that September morning back in 1968.

It had been billed as Mary’s middle lad’s “big day” (why was it “bigger” than any other?) but Mary Laverty, just like Daddy Laverty, had to work.

‘Granny Conway’ would be the one taking me to All Saints Primary. I was excited. I’d never been in “a school” before.

Yes, they’d been talking about “taking” me to this place. No one, however, mentioned “leaving” me there.

The full horror about to unfold manifested itself in the lobby of that boxy building.

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“Good luck, wee pet,” said Granny Conway. “See you later...”

“LATER? Where are you going, Granny?”

Her: “I’m going home.”

Me (instantly hysterical): “What? No, no no; you’re not leaving me HERE!”

I tried to run away but the large leather satchel was an impediment. She caught me easily, then proceeded to drag this five-year-old malcontent back through the front door.

So I kicked her. Hard. So hard, she carried the pain of that attack to her grave a couple of years later. She was forever grateful to the school caretaker Barney Neeson (father of future Hollywood star Liam) for tending to her (badly) injured leg. Me? I got over the trauma (and the guilt) as soon as I laid eyes on my pal Adrian from a few streets away. So he’s here too? And it’s all boys? No silly girls here? Wow, this could be fun!

One of the other boys, the snot tripping him, cried virtually all morning. Another wet himself. But the bespectacled Miss McVeigh, positioned in front of that huge blackboard, seemed very nice, there were those cool wooden desks with the hinged lid and an “inkwell” (?), an indoor sandpit and loads of toys.

We got one of those mini milk bottles to drink from (“you’re lucky; the black babies in Biafra wouldn’t get this,” said Miss McVeigh), neat kid-sized (ergo, easily missed) toilets and, after an ear-splitting, circular metal bell heralded something called “break-time”, we were released down a newly polished corridor and into the playground.

Prior thoughts of breaking out of this concrete single-floor facility below the old Hugomont Mansion in Ballymena had evaporated; where could you escape to, anyway? We didn’t even know where we were.

Yet an hour earlier, after Granny Conway had slowly limped away, I’d been wondering what I’d done to deserve this unilaterally declared, undemocratic incarceration; why a kindergarten re-enactment of that memorable, heartrending scene in Ken Loach’s groundbreaking 1966 drama Cathy Come Home felt so necessary.

Half a century later ... the webside provides helpful details on ‘Overcoming First Day Fears At Primary School’.

You’re advised to “explain where they’ll be going, what they’ll be doing, and for how long”.

Preparation for what could be a shocking and traumatic experience, initially at least, includes “visiting the school with your child (before term) so they become familiar with the building and the local area” and “establishing a routine; talking about what might be happening at school at different times of the day”.

Oh, and “don’t dismiss your child’s fears; things that seem obvious or silly to an adult can seem like terrible obstacles to them”.

Of course we had nothing like that in the late Sixties; no discussion about what “learning through play” means, no real recognition about what a milestone in your formative years this is, no preparation for your first real stab at “independence”.

I don’t blame my parents; forgive the use of a hackneyed phrase, but that’s the way it was in those days. Child psychology? That was just “mumbo-jumbo some Yank dreamt up”, my dad would tell me, when I was old enough to understand what it was but too old to benefit from it.

My daughter Soley is at primary now. There was never going to be a repeat of The Granny Conway Incident.

Au contraire; on Day One she was up at 5.30am, beside herself with excitement.

There’d be no trauma, no tears (and no physical pain) when mum Claire and I dropped her off; she’d already met her teacher, Mrs Herbert, at the open day, knew exactly how many of her pre-school pals would be in the same class — and, any time that summer we drove past the place: “Oh look, Mummy, there’s the SCHOOL! When am I going there? How many sleeps?”

If anything, the trepidation emanated from her parents, who were relieved, proud and highly emotional when Soley strode purposefully into classroom P1A.

Some day, she’ll probably ask me what ‘corporal punishment’ was. She’ll no doubt be astonished that it existed “in my day”.

“You mean teachers were allowed to HIT you, Daddy?”

Such abomination notwithstanding, I remember ultimately having to be dragged away from this new-found fun-house, rather than towards it.

One final surprise when we got out at lunchtime that first day; my mum was waiting outside.

“Where’s Granny Conway, Mummy?”

“Erm, she’s at home. I’m afraid she couldn’t make it...”

Leona O'Neill: 'I dropped them off then went back to the car and cried, like mums the land over always do'

My primary school was the only integrated school in Derry at the time. My parents were keen that my brothers and sisters went there for that very reason.

I remember being terrified walking in through what looked like massive doors on my first day as a primary one pupil. I gripped my mum's hand like my life depended on it.

The classroom looked massive and unfamiliar and the faces of a host of equally terrified young strangers peered back at me.

My teacher was Ms Torney, a woman of Indian heritage who occasionally dressed in the most stunningly vibrant saris. I thought she was the most beautiful woman, apart from my mum, I'd seen in my short life.

I can still smell the aroma of poster paint, chalk and disinfectant from that first day and the feeling of achievement of going that length of time - four hours, which felt like a lifetime - without my mum.

I was petrified walking in the doors, but school turned out to be wonderful.

I made many great friends and spent break and lunchtime running around what looked like the biggest playground in the world.

I remember the principal organised for an award-winning team of American yo-yo pros to come into the school to do a demonstration.

Seven-year-old me - and every single other pupil - sat crossed-legged and slack-jawed on the floor of the assembly hall and watched these guys swing their yo-yos around their heads like lassos, make triangles and 'walk the dog'.

There wasn't a yo-yo left in a shop in the land as every pupil spent the next month trying to replicate what the pros did.

For a time, everyone's career aspirations were of the yo-yo pro variety, but then there were black eyes, broken teeth and people almost strangled to death with yo-yo string trying to perform the 'around the world' trick.

No one seemed to put a lot of emphasis on health and safety in those days. I remember us girls swinging upside down on a horizontal metal railing, inventing our own gymnastics moves while the playground supervisors stood smoking and gossiping.

Gymnastics was never my strong point and I swung around the railing and whacked my face off the concrete.

I split my upper lip badly, bled profusely all over my school shirt and had a wound that resembled a moustache for weeks after.

I remember the school being evacuated because of a bomb alert. I was in primary two, so I was maybe six years old. We were ushered out by worried-looking teachers trying to keep their cool.

I added to the drama by panicking and insisting that I needed to get my baby brother Cathal, who was in nursery.

I remember being nearly sick with worry and crying my eyes out until I saw him being led out along with his class by his teacher into the rain-swept playground.

I also remember a girl being sick on the floor of the classroom and a boy commenting that he thought girl vomit was supposed to be pink before he also threw up.

This action set in motion a catastrophic chain of vomiting, which saw five or six children being sick on the floor.

It's funny how things stay in your mind - the aroma of Play-Doh still brings back that particular memory.

I'd say I probably learned things during school too.

My love of journalism was sparked in that school. I wrote a story about a volcano in primary three. My teacher made a big deal of it, awarding me a star, putting it on the wall and bringing my dad over to see it when he came in to collect me. She said it was brilliant.

I have been trying unsuccessfully to get the same adulation ever since.

Twenty years later I walked back into the same school with my own three sons and my daughter. The doors seemed tiny, the assembly hall not actually the size of a stadium, and the playground, which I could barely see the far end of in my own days at the school, looked not much bigger than our garden at home.

I felt the terror again, but this time as a parent. Would my child be okay? Would they make friends? Would the teacher know how very special they are?

I remember them all gripping my hand like I gripped my mum's and I remember letting it go - a monumental moment in any parent's life.

Letting them go at the classroom door to walk ahead without you, to make life-long friends, have adventures, learn independence and know how the world works outside the blissful family bubble is tough.

I told them, as my mum did 30 years ago at the same classroom door, that it would be okay, that they would make friends and have fun.

The four times I dropped off a nervous primary one pupil, I went back to the car and cried, like mums the land over have done since the beginning of time.

The first day of school is the first step in us letting them grow but also letting their hands go and waving them off as they venture out into the big world. We should cherish every moment.

Belfast Telegraph


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