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Tears or fun with new friends: how was your first day at school?


Independent streak: Cate Conway
Independent streak: Cate Conway
Leona O'Neill

By Leona O'Neill

As many youngsters head out for class, Leona O'Neill asks some famous faces to recall their initial steps in the world of education.

‘We did a lot of singing... I was so bad a teacher told me I had to mime instead’

Q Radio's Cate Conway loved going to St Joseph's Primary School in Carryduff but "hated being told what to do" and "having to be quiet".

"I can remember a photographer came in from a local paper on the first day and took a class photo," she says.

"I was really confused as to why I was in a room with a load of other kids and had to do stuff that a woman who wasn't my mum was telling me to do.

"She was a lovely teacher, though - Mrs McCallion was her name.

"In spring they had a tank of frogspawn and we watched it become tadpoles. They grew wee stumps that became legs.

"I was fascinated by that. I especially liked it when they were really tiny frogs.

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"I also loved my packed lunch. I had a Snoopy lunch box with matching flask.

"My mum used to send me into school with chicken soup with tiny pasta letters and a chicken spread sandwich.

"We used to do a lot of singing in class, but I am a terrible singer.

"One teacher told me that I had to mime instead of actually singing because I sounded so bad."

Cate loved and hated school in equal measure.

"I suppose it was a mix of both," she says. "I loved being with my friends, but I hated things like being told what to do and having to be quiet most of the time.

"Even though I did have fun when I was at school, there was always someone who could end the fun and make you do sums.

"I did okay in school as the years went on. I made a lot of really good friends who I'm still in touch with. It's lovely to see them now.

"There's something really special about the people who have known you for most of your life."

'I had an advantage because my twin brother was in the same class'

Sky News Ireland correspondent David Blevins attended Hart Memorial Primary School in Portadown and was taught by Mrs McCreery, who retired after David's class left for primary two. He had plenty of familiar company in class.

"I wasn't terrified starting school, but then I had an advantage: I wasn't starting alone. My twin brother Stephen and I started in the same class in the same school on the same day. In fact, we remained in the same class until the age of 15," David says.

Fond memories: journalist David Blevins

"The one thing I do remember about that day is our surprise at discovering there were three sets of twins in our class of 30 - the McClures, the Stevensons and us.

"I remember the excitement in the little things - being allocated a coat hook with a little picture that identified it as yours and being given my first book.

"I remember the people, the teachers and the classmates much more than I remember learning anything.

"I recall the one day each week when the radio, later the TV, would be wheeled into class on a trolley for us to listen to school programming. I remember visiting Downing Street and the Houses of Parliament during our school trip to London. It's funny that broadcasts and Westminster are the things I recall."

David also remembers being wrongly blamed for something.

"I recall one morning in primary three before the teacher arrived in the class," he begins. "The pupils were being noisy, so the principal opened the door. He did so as I was passing a chair over the desk to another pupil.

"He sent us to his office for 'fighting over the chair'. I remember standing in his office crying my eyes out, not so much in fear, but because of the sense of injustice.

"But I loved school. I just didn't love going to class or doing homework. It was the place we made friends. I'm still in contact with people from my primary one class; the place where we fell in love for the first time - the less said about that the better - the place where we learned about the world together."

David's high school also holds a very special place in his heart.

"After primary school, we transferred to Clounagh Junior High School and subsequently Portadown College," he says.

"I could be wrong about this, but back then I think there was a better balance between study and fun. No one remembers their first maths lesson, but everyone remembers the opening night of the annual school play.

"Clounagh has a special place in our hearts because Stephen and I were just 12 when our father died. We will never forget the pastoral care we received from that school, so much so that I decided to give something back and now serve as chair of the board of governors there.

"I wouldn't say my school days were the best days of my life, but they were good days.

"If you read my old school reports, you'll find words like 'David likes to write', 'He finds English much easier than maths'.

"In other words, my teachers knew much more about me than I knew about myself. I'm doing what I do today because of them."

'I was terrified of my mummy getting a phone call, so I tried my best to behave'

TV personality and presenter Ashleigh Coyle went to St Oliver Plunkett Primary School in Londonderry. Her memories of her first day are hazy but, according to her mum, she was nervous and "did nothing but cry".

Nervous beginning: Ashleigh Coyle

"I used to love May or June time at school when we were allowed up onto the grass," Ashleigh says. "All the girls would have packed shorts to wear at break and lunch time and would have marked each other's cartwheels, handstands and gymnastics.

"I fell in primary two in the playground and busted my chin open. I don't know if I felt worse because of the blood or having to walk through the canteen in front of all the primary sevens screaming and crying, totally embarrassed. I've still got the scars on my chin.

"There was nothing worse than sports day.

"I wouldn't say I hated school, but I definitely wouldn't say I liked it. I think I struggled a lot with big social circles, which I still do, but obviously that isn't ideal when at school."

Ashleigh did well at school, even if it wasn't the best time of her life.

"Luckily, I was very academic growing up, so it made things a lot easier and there was a lot less pressure put on me," she says.

"I was also terrified of my mummy getting a phone call, so I tried my best to behave - I emphasise the word 'tried'.

"That made my life easier, but I wouldn't say my school days were the best days of my life."

'Mum walked me in with our dog... I can remember the apprehension'

Linda McAuley, who presents On Your Behalf on BBC Radio Ulster, attended Glenlola School in Bangor.

"I remember my mother walked me to the gate with our dog Tinker and I remember the apprehension," she says.

"In those days there was kindergarten and transition instead of primary one and primary two. After that we moved to primary three in the big school, which was like starting school again because it seemed huge.

Shaky start: Linda McAuley

"I liked English and music best. Miss Tilly was a wonderfully inspiring teacher.

"The music teacher Miss Crooks allowed me to play some of the instruments she kept in the store. Getting to pick the strings of the huge harp was a special treat.

"Maths classes are forever in my nightmares. I still freeze if someone asks me to add up or subtract big numbers.

"I was very un-sporty. I hated running up and down the all-weather hockey pitches and being taken to swim in the cold-water pickie pool. There was a blackboard at the entrance with the temperature written on it, usually 54 degrees.

"My sister once asked me why we didn't go to the pool in the leisure centre. I replied it wasn't built then.

"I didn't like school much - I couldn't wait to get out into the real world.

"I got by, but I didn't enjoy school.

"However, last year, after I'd been honoured with an MBE for services to consumers, I was delighted to be asked to go back and present the school prizes, which would have surprised me if I'd known that on my first day.

"My school days weren't the best days of my life, but that's not the fault of the school or the teachers. I just preferred the school of life."

'I was excited to learn new things and make new friends...  I wasn't fazed by anything'

U105 Breakfast Show co-host and sports journalist Denise Watson went to Harmony Hill Primary School in Lisburn, where she was the tallest in her class.

"I honestly can't recall my first day at school, apart from getting a little milk bottle with a straw in it at break time. They came in big blue crates and often the milk was lukewarm," she says.

"There was a boy in my class called Neil who giggled a lot and my teacher was called Mrs Tolerton. She had dark hair and was very nice.

Raring to go: Denise Watson

"My mum says there were a lot of other mums who said, 'What's that big girl doing in primary one?' I was a head taller than all the other pupils.

"I was excited to be going to school to learn new things and make friends.

"Mum gave up work to look after me and my sister, so we spent most days with her at home and at a mothers and toddlers group once a week at the nearby church.

"Mum says that I was never fazed by anything. I didn't suffer from separation anxiety or cry when she left me.

"The school had a great canteen and dinner ladies. The food was great. I remember jam Swiss rolls with thick custard.

"Teachers encouraged you to take part in drama and plays and sport was big too.

"Sports days were held in the field at the back of the school. I loved the sack race and the egg and spoon race. We also did our AAA athletics badges and long jumps and high jumps were measured properly, with healthy competition between pupils being encouraged.

"I started playing netball in primary six. My love for the sport started there in the playground with Miss Titterington."

But among the good times, there was tragedy too.

"There was a lovely boy in my class called Keith who died," Denies says. "At the time it wasn't explained, but now I know he had leukaemia. He was a beautiful boy who lit up a room with his smile."

In later years she enjoyed the healthy competitiveness of grammar school.

"I was a sensible and hard-working student," Denise says. I went to Wallace High School, the grammar in Lisburn. Grammar school shaped me. I loved the competitiveness and the discipline.

"Sport played a big part in my life, especially netball, and I became netball captain and house captain in upper sixth.

"I was happy with my results too - nine GCSEs and an A, B and C at A-level. I went on to study English literature at Queen's.

"You could say I was a bit of a swot, but I believe if you work hard, you get results.

"I've been married for 20 years and have two amazing girls aged 11 and 14. One is at primary school and the other is at Wallace in year 11. I'm happy seeing them grow and develop."

'I kicked my teacher in the shins and cried, but then I found the sand pit'

The BBC's Vinny Hurrell attended Mount St Michaels Primary School in Randalstown - and was violently opposed to going on the first day.

"My teacher was called Miss Close and I should publicly apologise to her. I have a vivid memory of kicking her in the shins as hard as I could," he says.

"I was not happy at my mother's attempts to leave me - I was and still am a mummy's boy - so I decided to take it out on the teacher. Much crying followed.

"I found the first few days very difficult, then I found the sand pit and things calmed down.

Temper tantrum: the BBC’s Vinny Hurrell

"I liked spending time with my mum and really didn't want to be away from her at all, so I was terrified and cross.

"In primary one I had a Postman Pat school bag. I loved it, but I was a lazy child and I would drag it behind me on the ground, to the point where a hole appeared and I lost all my felt tips. That was another meltdown.

"Primary six and primary seven were my highlights. I loved my teacher and got to develop my love of art and English - something I still use to this day on the Nolan Show.

"I failed my Eleven-Plus but was so sure I had passed. However, on reflection as an adult, the study time I was forced to do in my room consisted mainly of colouring in and drawing.

"When I opened my results in the kitchen, I remember telling my mum they had made a mistake and sent me someone else's results. It was a tough lesson at a young age, but I'm glad of it now. It made me more determined."

Vinny went from enjoying primary school to finding secondary school challenging.

"I liked primary school for the majority of my time there," he says. "Secondary, not so much. I felt like I didn't fit in - something that was a lesson in itself for me as I grew up.

"You go from trying to fit in at school to spending the rest of your life trying to stand out, trying to achieve your goals and trying to keep yourself balanced.

"I made a small group of incredible friends and for that I am extremely grateful. Sadly, one is no longer with us.

"I found the ups and downs in high school tough. Even though I met some incredible people - some of whom I still see regularly today - I was glad to leave.

"School is such a small part of your life. If you love it, lap it up because it'll be over soon and you'll be in the big, bad world of work. If you hate it, hang in there. It'll be over in a flash."

Belfast Telegraph


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