Life

Nuala McCann: Suffer the little children – and teachers

Back to school, Monday. Suffer little children and big adult teachers alike. Across the country, children are struggling with the top button on their new school shirt, giving up on tying the school tie and hunting for the right peg in the cloakroom.

Children everywhere are heading back to school this week

MY NEPHEW was born on 1 September. "Poor him," our boy sighed. "His birthday will always and forever be the day he's heading back to school."

But my nephew loves it, adores it, can't wait for it. Mind you, they take him out for the odd trip to the supermarket and he gets to stick his feet in a jacuzzi – what's not to love?

Me? I was a late starter. Even now in nightmares, I return to the never ending school corridor. It's a scene from The Shining with mad Jack Nicholson lurking with an axe: "Heeeere's Johnny!"

But it was quite good really, despite the odd slap and whack.

Nowadays, the experts might call my condition 'separation anxiety'. It took me years to let go of my mother's skirts.

And I remember how big the school seemed, how intimidating – the swish of the nuns' black skirts, wondering what lurked below those weird wimples, the clack of the huge wooden rosary beads tied around their waists, the shrill electric brrrr of the bell and the taste of too warm milk from the bottles in the crate, left at the classroom door for break.

Returning years later, it felt like my head was playing tricks.

Like Gulliver in the land of Lilliput, the corridor seemed short – no long stretch – the desks and the chairs were doll's house-sized and it was all I could do to balance one buttock on a seat.

In the later years, I'd flourish. But the beginnings were hard. It was all such a drama – from the early morning mental arithmetic with machine-gun fire questions rattled round the class, to spelling tests.

"Ah," said my friend, "we got a slap for everyone we got wrong."

We didn't, but we got a slap for going out in the playground in the rain, for not knowing a teacher's favourite saint, for very little.

But there were great teachers too, who didn't bother with the corporal punishment and who taught us with love.

When our boy started school, he had a great first day. "It's my first day at school," he told the postman and the lollipop man and the woman who lives next door to the school and the little black cat crossing the street.

It was day two that posed the problem. "I've already done it," he told me as I led him by the hand. It took him a few years to get used to the everyday nature of school.

At the end of Primary One, I was driving him across town to collect his dad in another school – another story – when I thought I'd broach the subject of his reluctance.

I listed all the joys of his school; a lovely teacher, computers in the corner and tasty school dinners. "Why don't you like school?," I asked.

"Well mum, it's like this," he replied from the back seat of the old Skoda.

"I just don't want to be teach-ed."

A friend suggested we get that slogan printed on a tee shirt.

And now he's grown up and he loves learning. It's me that misses the small boy pulling leaves off the privet hedges as he dandered slowly all the way to school.

I miss Roy the lollipop man who greeted us every morning, who knew us by name. I miss the days of the big cello that our boy wore in a bag on his back so that he looked like an ant with a treasure haul as he scuttled up the hill to the school gate.

The pencil marks on our hall wall chart the growth of boy to man – up and up – until he's looking down on me and his dad.

The days of autumn leaf print paintings and finding polished chestnuts in the park are long gone. The days of stumbling barefoot on a piece of lego or a small plastic soldier are gone too.

He has put away childish things. School and boyhood is long in the past.

I keep the best memories in a box on top of the wardrobe. Someday, he'll open it and be glad we kept his milk teeth.

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