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Telling tales out of school

As children across Northern Ireland get set to go back to the classroom, four well-known local writers recount their experiences of their time in 'Big School'

They're supposed to be the happiest days of your life – the clang of the bell, the shrill shriek of laughter and games in the playground, the endless appetite for learning and self-improvement, mixed in with childish innocence.

Almost everyone has memories of their schooldays, from their very first day of primary school to the elation of moving on as a young adult – exam results in hand (or not) – to a career, university, travel or some other new direction in life.

In truth, for many the school years are ones of ups and downs, of hard knocks and even harder headmasters, as well as the forging of lifelong friendships in the classroom and on the sports field.

But if there's one memory that stands out for all of us, it's of that very first day at 'Big School'. Sheltered as we may have been by our primary school experiences, there was nonetheless a sense of nervous excitement as we ambled through the gates of our chosen secondary school, satchel in sweaty hand and head down for fear of making eye contact with anyone bigger than us.

But how does that first big day shape our experiences of the six or seven years that are to follow? We asked four well-known journalists and writers to recount their first days at secondary school and the lasting memories it has provided.

Maureen Coleman

Some years ago I was invited back to my old grammar school to interview a former pupil who'd become a huge international star. Singer Katie Melua had attended Dominican College, Fortwilliam, for several years while she lived here – long after I'd been a student at the school.

The photographer who accompanied me that day asked one of my old teachers: "So what was Maureen like back then?" The teacher smiled and replied: "She was a non-conformist, an unconventional child."

Her response surprised me as I never considered myself in any way rebellious. I was the stereotypical bookworm – holed up in the library, nose in some text, preparing weeks in advance for my exams. I was rarely in trouble, a good Grade A pupil. But in my mid-teens I discovered the double delights of fashion and music. I became a Mod. My school was fastidious about uniform but I broke the rules time after time, tweaking my skirt length, sock and shoe colour. I backcombed my hair and wore heavy black kohl around my eyes. I was never disciplined about my disregard for the regulations. When I mentioned this to my teacher that day, she said: "We wanted to nurture your creativity."

In many ways my school days were among the happiest of my life. I loved learning. Unlike many children, I never found 'big school' a daunting experience. When I started Fortwilliam at the age of 11, I was already quite self-contained and confident. On my first day at Mercy Primary School, there was an unfortunate incident when another little girl wet the floor. I instructed the nun to go and fetch a bucket and mop while I stayed behind to look after the child. I was four years of age. By the time I reached 11 I had a circle of close friends – a safety net, if you like – who were all attending Fortwilliam with me. I had no fear.

But grammar school threw up some challenges I wasn't expecting. At the end of first year, my Best Friend Forever, the girl who'd been by my side throughout primary school, decided to dump me. She'd met a much cooler BFF, a Goth-type creature with a pale face and crimped hair. I was still in love with David Soul at the time and had just about moved on from playing with dolls. I took the rejection badly. As melodramatic as it sounds now, I was heartbroken. My close-knit circle of friends began to fall apart at the seams. Two other girls left school later on due to personal circumstances and I was pretty much alone. I was an easy target for the bullies. And so it began ...

For months I was picked on, made fun of, whispered about by a group of girls. I'd walk into a room and they'd all stop talking. They'd find new ways every day of trying to provoke or upset me. This sad little group had a ringleader – a controlling, manipulative girl whose chief pastime was to try and turn people against me. But I never let the bullying take over my life. I had a boyfriend and my books. I was above and beyond their silly, immature games.

I figured the best way to beat the bullies was to be successful. I'd wanted to do journalism from the age of 13 and I wasn't going to let some jealous loser stand in my way. I'm grateful for the education I received – and not just in academic terms. I learned how to cope with rejection, how to stand up for myself and, most importantly, that it's ok to be the unconventional child in the class.

Maureen Coleman is a freelance journalist

Linda Stewart

We celebrated my 11-plus results at the Kiln in Larne with my favourite meal – a half roast chicken and chips, followed by an Irish coffee (without the whiskey, of course!). For the entire year before that, my mum had sat me down at the dining room table every Saturday to work through the practice tests she bought at Edco.

We both knew that I had to get an A grade, if I was to get into Larne Grammar School, because I was young for my year. So I was thrilled to get that letter, but the shine came off somewhat when my best friend was awarded a G grade, meaning she wouldn't be joining me there. It was the beginning of the end for our friendship as our paths stopped crossing.

But when I walked into Larne Grammar, excitement gave way to trepidation. The place loomed on a hill looking down the Grammar Brae and it could have rivalled Hogwarts for its confusing layout – the labyrinthine main school, the old rooms with loose wallpaper hanging down from the walls, the mysterious little staircase behind the library. Not to mention 8A, where you had to queue along the windows of the French classroom on a first floor ledge while you were waiting for the German teacher to open up.

It was a toss-up which was worse – double Maths, double Home Economics or double Games. Although Home Economics was about dropping steaming great casseroles on the floor and Maths was about trying to look insignificant in case the sarcastic teacher's basilisk eye landed on you, at least neither involved the PE teachermaking you complete the lesson in your pants when you forgot your shorts.

Computers were just coming in so we had Computer Appreciation, which involved covering the delights of the difference engine and admiring the bulky BBC computers from afar – no chance of actually getting to touch one, though. And we were the last year to do Latin, which prompted hysterical giggling as Sextus molested Flavia under the tree in our Ecce Romane textbook.

Like many schools at the time, bullying occurred and I was on the receiving end of a lot of it, both physical and emotional. I cried myself to sleep many nights over those first two years and those experiences have left their mark.

You weren't allowed to stay in the classrooms at lunchtime, so all your efforts were directed at finding an out-of-the-way spot away from the lashing rain and unwelcome attention from rage-filled proto-teenagers. There was also a rush for the front of the bus on the way home, or risk having your sweaty hockey gear grabbed and distributed round the seats.

My coping strategy was to throw myself into my work and the bullying stopped once we were streamed for third year. The teachers changed noticeably when we reached sixth form – they stopped talking to us like we were slightly disappointing puppies, and you could even have a conversation with them.

And that mysterious staircase turned out to lead to a fascinating box room where years of school play costumes were stored.

School was a tough testing ground at times, but it delivered a top-class education and got me into Oxford, thanks in no small part to Mr Orr who pushed me to take the entrance exams after I expressed what was initially a very vague interest.

Linda Stewart is Environment Correspondent for the Belfast Telegraph

Ivan Little

My first big day at 'big' school wasn't really a big problem – it was the second one.

For that was when the penny dropped – and there were still pennies in those prehistoric days – that there was something about me that was a little bit different from my peers. And it wasn't just my name. I had passed the 11-plus before my time, having been moved on a year in primary school, which meant I was the youngest pupil starting at Grosvenor High School – that was still its name – and there was absolutely nothing High about me.

Yes, I was to shoot up to 6ft 3ins in years to come but in Miss McFadden's 1B I was Little in every sense of the word. And I mean EVERY sense of the word.

Think pre-pubescent. Think showers. Think older boys. Think humiliation. And you've got me to a tee – the gormless and loads of other things-less geek in the Buddy Holly glasses.

My poor mother – God rest her – didn't exactly help matters either.

For she made me wear short trousers, despite my pleas that my counterparts had graduated to the full-length variety, but I had nothing to cover my knees or my embarrassment.

Time and time again Mum told me I was too young for long trousers even though I was deemed old enough for an early grammar school education.

Try telling that to the wise guys from Orangefield Boys School on the same Castlereagh campus as us. They loved picking on the largest Grosvenor boys, never mind the knock-kneed bespectacled runt of the litter.

But the long and the shorts of it was that the transition from Strandtown Primary School to Grosvenor might also have been easier if I had known anyone else on those first nervous days.

But virtually everyone at Strandtown went on to Sullivan Upper or Inst.

Not a sinner apart from yours truly went to Grosvenor, where I was enrolled because my big brother had prospered there. It might have been better too if I had liked rugby but the football that I preferred was a round one.

And as I grew ever taller I was forced to play for rugby teams. In the front row.

I swear I was less frightened flying into Baghdad as a reporter than coming face to face with the heavyweight heavies from the likes of Annadale as they bit and hit us props in places I really don't care to remember.

Ironically, the only time I was called to the office of headmaster Mr William Moles was after I stayed away from a Grosvenor Schools Cup semi-final even though we were all given the day off to attend it.

The sports master knew I wouldn't go and scoured the crowd to prove his suspicions were right.

No, cricket was a more gentle and genteel way to pass the time for me. I followed my brother into the role of keeping score for the cricket teams. And I was also scorer for Ulster and Ireland school sides.

It mightn't sound like much of a job but I toyed with the idea of making it a career in England after an approach from the BBC, no less.

The careers master who was a teacher of Classics was almost bowled over but it was another Latin master who changed my life.

When I started Grosvenor I had resolved that gone were the carefree primary school days of fun and freedom and a blind faith that fate would deliver the goods in the examination room.

I reckoned now it was all about knuckling down to the serious agenda of shaping my own destiny by dint of hard graft.

But I had pimples that lasted longer than my new philosophy. Nothing and no-one really made me sit up and take an interest in anything of an academic nature. Until Mr Sam Ross straightened me out and sorted me out by recruiting me for school plays. Why he made me his leading actor in so many productions is a mystery worthy of Hitchcock himself because I was so shy I didn't – I couldn't – even talk in class.

Mr Ross told me that I should consider going on to study drama.

And when, in later years, I achieved a little bit of success as an actor I contacted my old headmaster in a bid to track Mr Ross down to thank him for his help. It all came to nothing but, in his letter to me, Mr Moles said he had followed my journalistic career with a sense of pride.

It was a very different headmaster's report from the ones he'd written a lifetime ago for that spotty little weasel hiding at the back of the class in Cameronian Drive.

Ivan Little is a freelance journalist, an author and an actor

Malachi O'Doherty

I started at secondary school on September 3, 1962. The building was new and still smelt of paint and polish. Part of the wonder was a sense of all this work having been done for us, the first generation into the CBS Glen Road.

There was also a mixture of fascination and dread. We had all heard stories about how fond the Christian Brothers were of the strap but corporal punishment had been routine in primary school, too, so we weren't particularly dreading it.

We were more concerned about older boys and the question of whether anyone was in a position to initiate the first-years with a dunking, given that we were all new here.

The consensus seemed to be that dunking would have to wait for a new intake so, though I was small enough to be lowered with ease headfirst into a toilet bowl, I was spared it.

Most of the first day classes were pep talks. Brother Walshe told us we'd read Shakespeare, which amazed me. Mr Cooney, the music teacher, talked of the choir he'd build and how we had to make the Brothers proud of us.

We were moved around different classrooms throughout the day and some of them were bright, with views of the Mournes, while others were dark and miserable.

Moving into a newly-built school, we did not inherit any nicknames for the teachers from the older boys so we invented them ourselves, and I wonder how long they lasted.

Mr Cooney became Chanter. Brother Quinlan was Primo, because of his ears. (If I remember right, the original Primo was a mouse puppet who advertised PG Tips). Brother Gibbons was Kipperhead because of his sunken cheeks and cavernous eye sockets. Some of the nicknames were almost affectionate, some vicious, depending on how fondly or not the teacher was regarded.

Part of the challenge of the big school was meeting and mixing with boys who had come from other primary schools in the area and getting to know them. There was a definite step up in the bawdiness and in the intensity of fighting.

I learnt a new four-letter word and refused to believe at first that there could be anything offensive in it until I saw the panic in the faces of other boys as I uttered it in full voice. This was a generation of boys who were eager to learn to smoke, some of whom wore scout belts to use as weapons and winklepicker shoes, because they were best for kicking others in the groin with.

So this was a time for shedding innocence, as quickly as possible, rather than losing it. Yet we were mostly gentle boys. I was in short trousers until I was 13, as were most of the other boys. Changing into long trousers tended to coincide with the voice breaking.

I had forgotten much of the early days at that school until I stumbled on a book of narrative poetry and discovered that I knew by heart huge chunks of Horatio on the Bridge, Young Lochinvar and How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix. I have forgotten much else that I learnt there, including how to resolve a quadratic equation.

Teachers trained us to learn by standing over us with straps to beat us when we faltered. Yet some of what they taught us was worth holding on to.

Malachi O'Doherty is Writer-in-Residence at Queen's University, Belfast

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