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Telling tales out of school

Kerry McKittrick talks to local celebrities about the highs and lows of school days and what they remember of their first days in the classroom

New satchels, pristine pencil cases, itchy blazers and stiff shirts and blouses. All over Northern Ireland, parents and children are preparing themselves for their first day at school. We hear from some well-known people who went on to greater things how the experience was for them.

Rose Neill (55) is a TV newsreader and lives on the shores of Strangford Lough with her husband, Ivan, and she has two sons, Roger (28) and Henry (26). She says:

I went to The Mount School in York. It was a boarding school, as my parents were quite keen that I went to school with all ethnic backgrounds.

I was 12 at the time and really excited about it. My mum came over with me on the plane the first time to get me settled in. I think she thought it would be very daunting for me, but I couldn't wait for her to get back to the airport so I could get stuck in.

I was an Enid Blyton reader when I was young, so I grew up with tales of midnight feasts and having your friends permanently on tap.

It was really good fun and I was there for the full seven years. There was plenty to do, from pottery, tennis, hockey, rounders, swimming and so on.

My biggest memory of my time there is how cold it was. I was permanently foundered, wearing thermals in and out of bed, so I wasn't exactly groovy.

It was in Yorkshire, so the wind was coming in off the moors and the bedrooms were very spartan, with skinny curtains that would let the wind howl through.

I loved being close to York, which is a beautiful medieval city with curious old shops. The school was also close to York racecourse, so those of use who were horse-mad would nip out without permission.

We then discovered if we went in our school uniforms, we got through the turnstiles for free. It was a bit of a balancing act — should you try getting in for free, or risk getting caught out?

I missed my family a bit, but I really missed my horse, Ji Ji — the school now facilitates girls with horses, but they didn't at the time.

I studied sciences like physics, chemistry and biology, but they had no effect on my career. Immediately after school, I did an 11-week programme at UTV called Hop, Skip And Jump, which was like a mini-Blue Peter; then I went to London to study dispensing optics. Eventually, after constantly writing to UTV, they asked me for an interview — and the rest is history.

The uniform at The Mount School wasn't too bad — a grey skirt and jumper with a blue shirt. The worst thing for me was that the pocket in the skirt wasn't big enough to keep all of my sweeties in. They only opened the tuck cupboard once a day and I found it tricky to survive the day without my pocketful of goodies.

About 60 per cent of my pals from Northern Ireland went away to different schools and it was quite nice to come back to find lots of people in the same boat. At one stage there were seven girls from Northern Ireland at The Mount.

I still have close friends from school — my best friend was the year above me and was the bridesmaid at my wedding. We still keep in touch and I see people at reunions and keep in touch over the internet.

We lived together so you could say we formed stronger friendships than day pupils would. You learned to tolerate things more than you would

have at a day school. You learned to live with someone that you absolutely despised, you just had to get on with it.

The one thing I can't eat because of school is Garibaldi biscuits. I was sick one time and sent to the sick wing where I thought they were trying to starve me — I probably had something like gastroenteritis.

I remember pals of mine coming to the window and handing me in Garibaldi biscuits, which I ate and was instantly very sick. I can't even pass them in the supermarket now without retching.

I'm glad I went to boarding school, though. I thought the whole thing was a total scream.

Pete Snodden (34) hosts the Cool FM Breakfast show each weekday morning. He lives in Bangor with his wife, Julia, and their daughter Ivanna (3). He says:

I went to Inst — RBAI — and I remember my first day like it was yesterday. It was just me and one other guy from my primary school, Bangor Central, who went to that school, so I hardly knew anyone.

First years were brought in the day before the rest of the school started and there are two things about that day that really stand out in my memory.

The first is that the kids who had gone to the Inst prep, Inchmarlo, arrived with briefcases. There must have been a trend there for bringing their dad's old briefcases to school.

The second thing I remember is that we were divided into houses and each house had a sixth-form prefect that would show the first years around the school.

The prefect for my house was the now-famous Stephen Nolan. I always remembered him, because as soon as he told me his name was Nolan I wondered to myself if he was any relation to the Nolan Sisters.

I look back very fondly at my time at school. Everyone has their moments, though — I think that's part of adolescence.

I can remember boys picking on me in around third or fourth year; there doesn't seem to be that much of a reason for it. Whenever you hear what kids go though with bullying these days, it's shocking. What I went through was childs’ play — it wasn't physical, more like just exclusion.

Boys would ignore you. It wasn't much, but it still hurt at the time.

On the whole, though, I had a great time at school. I was into sport and Inst very much pushes extracurricular activities.

Hockey was the big thing that I still play. I also played rugby for a while in first form and cricket, too.

I'm an only child and I lived in Bangor, so I got the train every day. Just the act of travelling away from home gave me independence.

For the first time I met people from all over Northern Ireland, from as far away as Portadown. I still have friends from my time at school. I've even been the godfather to my friend from school Alex's child.

My best subjects were geography and technology, so I ended up in an architecture course at university. It didn't take me long to realise it wasn't for me, so I changed course the next year.

It's amazing how you change from how you were at school. I'm now very interested in current affairs and politics, but at school I paid no attention to that kind of thing at all.

I just lived for playing sport. Going to training and playing on the school team was brilliant. I did get involved in the drama stage team, too. I helped to build the sets, which is impressive given that I'm the most useless person at DIY.

The thing was that we teamed up with the girls' school Victoria College for the plays. Being in the stage team meant we didn't have to act, or make fools of ourselves, but we were still in the picture, so we could meet the girls.

Lynda Bryans (50), is married to UUP leader and former broadcaster Mike Nesbitt (56). After a successful career in TV, Lynda balances running media production company Take I Take II with Mike, lecturing at the Belfast Metropolitan College and being mum to PJ (18) and Christopher (16). She says:

I vaguely remember my first day at Saintfield High School. I can remember being very nervous, because it was big school. I didn't pass my 11-plus, but my parents were going to pay for me to go to Carolan Grammar School, but I didn't want to do that because I had it in my head that I wasn't good enough to go.

My first day wasn't so bad after all. I met more people as the day went on and that put me at ease. There were people there from my primary school whom I knew, but wasn't particularly close to. I had three very close friends at primary school whom I was very close to, but they had each gone on to a different school.

I remember the big stiff, woollen blazers on my first day and I think there's a photo of me standing at the front door on my first day in it — it was massive on me to give me room to grow into it.

I always loved getting the new books on the first day and you would always tell yourself that you would keep it perfectly through the year. Of course, at the end the books were as dog-eared as everything else.

I think fourth year was the turning-point for me at school. I started getting big and discovered exciting things like make-up and ear-piercings, so I blossomed a little. I see people I went to school with at events, but I'm actually closest still to the girls I went to primary school with.

I loved my English teacher at school. Her name was Marilyn Boyd and she had an inate ability to see what was good in a student and she would encourage that to come out. She encouraged my confidence and gave me the correct use of English and I owe her a lot for that.

The worst class was maths, which was taught to me by a Mr Young who always seemed very cross. He later left teaching to take up bar and event work. It's still in my head that I can't do maths.

If I could have done anything differently back then, I would have studied. I would have told the young me not to mind what people say about you, just do your homework.

Katie Larmour (29) is a model and TV presenter and she lives in Holywood, Co Down with her fiancee, Harry Diamond. She says:

I went to Stranmillis Primary School and then on to Victoria College, so on my first day I'm sure I was looking round to see who I knew.

I hated the uniform at Victoria, but on reflection it was really nice — I always think it when I see the girls walking up the Malone Road.

It was a soft grey and maroon with a straight, knee-length skirt and we even had an open-necked shirt we could wear in the summer. At the time I wished it was any other colour.

I had to walk to school, because I didn't live far enough away to get the bus. I would have left the house looking immaculate to my mum's standards, but by the time I got to school I would look a bit different.

The socks would go down and I would have loosened my tie and put my pony tail higher. That was my way of rebelling and making my uniform slightly more exciting.

I loved the walk, though — right up to the age of 18, I cut off five minutes off my journey by going through a neighbour's hedge.

I've never once dyed my hair — my mum wouldn't let me for years. In first year, though, everyone else was experimenting with hair colour.

I wanted to do it, but I was too scared of my mum, so I thought it would be a good idea to dye my fringe. I didn't think my mum would be that cross if I dyed just my fringe, so I used that awful Sun-In spray. I came home from school with brown hair and a bright orange fringe.

I also had a nickname at school — a couple of people called me “KitKat Larmour”. It was because my legs were so skinny. It didn't upset me, but I knew it wasn't a flattering

nickname. I spent as much time as I could at school in the art department — even if I didn't need to be there working on a project. The art teachers just gave me free rein to do whatever I liked.

It paid off, because I got 100 per cent for my A-Level art project and it was the top mark in Northern Ireland that year.

Noel Thompson (57) will be hosting BBC Northern Ireland’s Proms In The Park from the Titanic Slipways on September 13. He lives in Belfast with his wife, Sharon, and they have two grown-up sons, Matthew and Patrick.

I remember my first day at primary school quite clearly. I went to Belmont Primary and I can remember a vague sense of bewilderment over the whole day.

I went with my friend Allan Greenaway and we had Mrs Jackson as our teacher and she was a terribly kind woman. I can remember a sense of confusion and Allan and I would look at each other from time to time as if to say, ‘This is interesting'.

My first day at Campbell College isn't terribly clear to me. I went from Belmont to Strandtown to Cabin Hill prep school, so going to Campbell wasn't that much of a jump because Cabin Hill was quite associated with the school and the whole class went up together.

I was of the generation where your O-Level choices were either science or languages and I chose French and German. The other choice was Latin or geography.

Campbell was a little different, because it was built around the boarding-school model, although I was a day boy. We went to school on Saturday mornings and had the third games lesson of the week on Saturday afternoon.

I was never a sporting genius, but I loved it. I played cricket and rugby and really enjoyed the whole thing.

I also did a lot of acting — at Cabin Hill, I was Fagan in Northern Ireland's first-ever production of Oliver! I had the prosthetic nose and everything. Campbell still had the house system and there was great rivalry between the houses. I became a prefect, but not head boy — that was always a boarder.

If I could give my younger self any advice, it would be to throw away the books and become a rock star. We had a band at Campbell and I can remember doing a concert in the school hall one day. The headmaster asked me, “Do you have to shake your head about like that?”

I was very lucky, though, in that I had extremely good teachers. I think, by and large, the school gave me more than I gave it, but I didn't realise that at the time.

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