This is the first week in August – the moment when traditionally, the complexion of the summer holidays changed. What was once a seemingly endless procession of nettle-stung shins, sandy sandwiches and comparing where-my-watch-was tans, reached a crest and the slope into the school return began.
I say traditionally but some things have changed. Nobody gets stung by nettles any more for health and safety reasons. Compulsory summer short-trousers are long gone. After the people turned their backs on the Old Gods, The Land was cursed with plagues of Scattered Showers and Atlantic Fronts. The Sun hid his face following an argument over Work Rosters. People lived in constant fear and darkness, burning votive candles to pray for the return of an Azores High.
But still, August is August and the Back To School signage (in chalky type-face) appear in the window of Dunnes.
During those halcyon years, now was the time when the previous term’s slacks and school jumper were retrieved. As the legs got used to the unfamiliar feel of long trousers, an experienced maternal eye was making a decision about whether “you’ll get another year out of them” and putting “elbow patches on the list for the next time we’re in town”.
Elbow and knee patches: useful objects that made a generation of primary school children look like absent minded professors from New England. They disappeared for a while but now they’re on the way back, judging from the amount of articles with titles like “Oooh WANT! We just love these new hipster patches by Jan Flutemeyer” and “Patching Things Up – Broaching The Subject Of Handmedowns To Your Children” that are appearing online.
Slack and jumpers were at the more banal end of the back to school to-do list. For me, by far the most interesting were the school books.
Primary school books didn’t change as often back in the 1980s. Such was the moribund state of the economy, there was simply no point in trying to generate cash by changing the syllabus. Plus, by that stage, the country hadn’t actually changed that much in 20 years so there was no need.
This was a time when we first watched Back To The Future, it wasn’t immediately apparent to us that Marty McFly had gone back to the 1950s because of all the consumer products everyone had. Battered though the second-hand copies were, it was still a voyage of discovery to get the books for the following year.
Their successful acquisition was made all the sweeter following the legendary queues at the BookMart on Washington Street. Outside, on the street, the mothers exchanged “It’s getting dearer every year’-s and “Sure this is it”s. Inside a small grey-haired lady who held the fate of thousands in her hand as she searched around the gloomy back of the shop for “Fun On The Farm” or “Lean Ag Obair” (assuming someone had only written in the workbook in pencil). But when she found it, the gratitude was obvious as another item was scratched off the increasingly dog-eared booklist by the triumphant parent.
(The queues were shorter at rival second-hand shops as the chances of a successful hit were fewer. It was still worth going to one shop in particular to sell a book, just to witness the mysterious process by which the man who worked in there calculated the price. He would take the book in his hands, tap some figures into a calculator. Then he would pause as if measuring atmospheric pressure and wind-speed, tap some numbers in again before announcing: “A Pound“)
When you finally got the books in your hands it was like looking at a flattened crystal ball of your future. There were the strange symbols in Busy At Maths that you knew would eventually become de rigeur. In the English Reader, after Ann and Barry had taught us all they could about jam, tea, ice-cream cake and the role of women in society, the game was upped. Now the training wheels were off and the Rainbow Series was going to guide us through the world – starting naturally by taking us “Away to Fairyland” and finishing up with a Crock Of Gold. The questions got harder, the writing got smaller and the pictures got fewer. But some will stay with us forever, like a car driving under the Sequoia tree or Theseus, the Minotaur and a ball of thread.
In Irish, it was all Me-Me-Me with a variety of verbs: Tig Liom Siuil Liom, Suas Liom, Gluais Liom.
As time went by other subjects were introduced. Through our history course with its preponderance of pikes, pitch-capping and planters, we found out “what the English were after doing to us”.
Progress is inexorable. Just as school-books became like Premiership replica shirts (changed every year for no reason), secondhand became less common. Now schools want the children to use iPads. iPads! It’s enough to drive you to Tablets.