Life

Nuala McCann: Here's hoping back to school's a touchstone to some kind of normality

I loved the idea of heading back to school; finding my peg in the cloakroom; the smell of new books. Yes, the starched collar of a new school shirt was stiff and unforgiving, new shoes polished to a gleam might gnaw at the heel, but that was part of the experience

Those were the days – it feels like another world but it feels like yesterday

SEPTEMBER is on the horizon but it’s one like no other. “I can’t wait,” sighs my friend. She’ll be cha cha sliding up the avenue to the school doors.

“It’s been six months solid of working flat out at the kitchen table with a small person bellowing the Bee Gees in my ear,” she says.

“It’s a tragedy,” I tell her. She gets the joke but she’s not in the mood.

Perhaps the joys of home schooling will give parents a renewed respect for teachers in classrooms across the country. I appreciate them, I was one.

Many more parents might recognise that long holidays do not make up for hard hours trying to get the French past imperfect into 30 students’ heads.

It all happens at the whiteboard face these days, the chalk face is long gone. But, swot that I am, I always loved September.

The leaves on the trees turned yellow and gold and it was about fresh beginnings. The summer of football and kick the can, street tennis and head the ball had begun to pall.

We had had our week in Kerry or Ballyshannon and I was tired of writing screeds of letters to my friends who lived a few miles down the road in Portglenone and Carnlough. We wanted to meet up and really talk.

I loved the idea of heading back to school; finding my peg in the cloakroom; the smell of new books. Yes, the starched collar of a new school shirt was stiff and unforgiving, new shoes polished to a gleam might gnaw at the heel, but that was part of the experience.

Back then, convent schools like mine called classrooms after saints – we’d have French in St Ita’s; Latin in St Brigid’s and art in St Joseph’s. Our class groups were called after local landmarks.

I was reminding my mother of this last week when I took her out for a drive to Cushendall and a walk along the beach. It was a beautiful day and the sun shone down on children splashing each other in the waves and dogs running about.

We travelled slowly – she pushing her three-wheeler, wending her way along the path. There’s Layde, I told her, pointing out the mountain that overshadows Cushendall.

“I was in Layde.”

It was a clever idea – ours classes were Layde, Lyndon, Lurig, Lisbreen and Lir instead of 1A or 1B or 1C. I was proud of my class. I made friends there who are still my friends nearly 50 years later.

My mother and I took the coastal road home from Cushendall, past the rocks called the White Lady who gazes out over the shore line. My father used to tell us that she was made to stand there for disobeying her parents and she stood so long, she turned to stone. We’d laugh – our dad was a big softie and we never believed a word of it.

We passed the old caravan park where, as a child, I spent weekends with my friend and her family – I remember trips out on the bay in a little boat and how the sun shone hard on us turning my face red and streaking my hair salt blonde.

On down the coast, we passed Garron Tower – my brother’s school and the place where we enjoyed our first teenage dances. They were called socials – a net of balloons was strung up on the assembly hall ceiling to make it festive and there was lemonade for sale from a school desk.

We drove past my old school friend’s home on the Largy long ago where we’d lie in bed on the morning after the social to pick apart every detail of who danced with whom and who kissed whom.

Those were the days, my friends – innocent days, I told my mother. It feels like another world but it feels like yesterday.

How easy life seemed when you covered school books in the ends of the old wallpaper roll and ruled a fresh red line with a new wooden ruler. Add today’s date and a title – use the fountain pen and the Stephen’s ink.

September marked a fresh start. There were, in the words of my old comprehension book, new worlds to conquer. And this year, back to school is a touchstone to some kind of normality.

September sun is warm brandy on our tongues and we look forward with hope.

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