The sun sank lower in the sky, washing the space above our heads with pastel colours, like the lake on a still summer evening when it’s hard to tell where the water ends and the sky begins. We’d been to Meet the Teacher, or “Meet the Creature” as J’s teacher called it when he reminded the class earlier that day. As we ambled home, J and T fished for compliments:
“Did you like my classroom?”
“What did you think of the place-mat I coloured?”
“Did you see the sorting dinosaurs? They’re my favourite!”
We re-toured the busy, bright rooms again in our imaginations and I told them they had lovely classrooms, such nice places to work and learn – very different from my first classroom. Like bloodhounds finding a scent, they knew they were onto something:
“What was yours like? Did you have dinosaurs?”
“Hmmmm,” I mused, “Not all the teachers were that bad!”
I remember my first day at school as clearly as if it were last week. I remember the cotton dress I wore, soft in spite of its newness, with pin-stripes of violet and white so fine you could only see them up close. I remember the anxiety I felt – my father brought me – late. The crunching of our steps in the otherwise silent gravel yard publicized our misdemeanour. Once inside, every sound we made leapt back at us, echoing in the dim, featureless corridor.
The Model School in Athy was founded in 1851 and in all those years had never managed to make its Tudor gothic appearance remotely welcoming. Standing near the junction of the Kildare and Dublin roads, its pitched roof, towering chimneys and tall, narrow doors and windows made it an intimidating spectacle to a child, though adults admired its historic beauty.
The headmaster, Mr Warren, was tall and narrow too with an aquiline nose and gimlet gaze. His black pinstriped three-piece suit and dark hair were as unchanging as the school he presided over. Aloof and faintly terrifying, his reputation for caning struck fear into the staunchest of hearts. Children’s cries echoed down the corridors and I remember the sick silence that hung in the classroom the day the sound of someone enduring painful punishment reached our ears even there.
It was rumoured you were caned simply for dropping a ruler in Mr Warren’s class. The inevitability of ending up there filled everyone with dread. In fact, despite my despair at leaving when we emigrated to the UK, the thought that I would never be taught by Mr Warren did provide a crumb of comfort; though by then I‘d already been on the receiving end of his cane, but more on that another time.
My children have bright, welcoming classrooms where they work in groups and pairs. There aren’t many more than twenty to a class and they have a library, a gym, water-fountains and child-friendly washrooms. It’s all very different from my first school experience where the classrooms were vast by my five-year-old calculations, their soaring ceilings obscured in the lightless vacuum of high altitude.
Tall windows lit the huge space but were too high up to see out of. Their checkerboard panes were filmed with dust anyway. On summer afternoons, buttery shafts of sunlight streamed in, spotlighting a million gleaming dust motes in unhurried balletic free-fall, warming our bobbing heads as we silently copied a paragraph on the lives of squirrels into our nature-study books from the blackboard; hunched over our desks like nameless souls in an Orwellian dystopia.
Classes in those days held over thirty children and with three classes to a room the desks numbered over a hundred; six regimented columns with a teacher’s desk command-post at the head of each pair. It was a daunting space to stand up alone in.
If we needed the toilet, we had to ask in Irish: “An bhfuil cead agam dul amach godti an leithreas?”
Judging by the queue at the start of every break time, I wasn’t the only one who held it in. I remember watching with shock and sympathy as one girl wet herself in front of the entire room after repeatedly struggling to phrase her request in a language that played no role in any of our daily lives. I’ll never forget how pathetic and broken she looked. I doubt if she ever forgot either.
The toilet block was outside, on the far side of the infant yard. Made of grey stone, it was semi-open to the elements, the only roofed part were the stalls themselves – dark and Spartan and often out of paper. Chilly in the winter, I suppose it had the twofold effect of discouraging malingerers and dispersing odours.
Inside, the floorboards threw up the dust of ages under the trampling of countless small T-bar sandals. Here and there you could peer through the gaps between them and spy all manner of excitingly unidentifiable long-lost items cushioned in fluff-filled obscurity. It was the final resting place of the pretty ring with the sparkly stone that my mother gave me, after Christopher Chambers snatched it from my hand and accidentally dropped it.
That fluff probably made great tinder for the fire that destroyed the school in 2010.