“Ooooooh they’re SOOOOOO CUUUUUUUTE” said Ireland. This was the week when thousands of small children went to Big School for the first time. Photos of little cherubs “in their little uniforms, awh” beamed out from newspapers all over the country.
If you’re broody, the first-day-at-school report on the evening news can be a tipping point. The sight of a Lazytown schoolbag and Hello Kitty pencil case can cause some women to spontaneously conceive – without a man or test tube in sight. When a little boy wearing Spongebob glasses appears on screen, even the flintiest-hearted men have been known to check their own torsos to see where they might fit a womb in.
The precise circumstances of my own first day at Dripsey primary school remain shrouded in mystery. No one seems to remember it. All my mother will say to the press – i.e. me – is that she had requested the school take me in early because I was ‘a bit lively’.
Dripsey had yet to introduce school uniforms when I started so I wore whatever Reeling-in-the-Years clothes were handed down. But there was one surprise – the magic windcheater. I was an unsophisticated child and easily impressed. A magic windcheater was a rain jacket specifically designed for Ireland’s changeable weather.
“Oh look, the rain’s stopped and the sun is out, what will I do now with my superfluous coat? What? Tuck it into itself? Wear it as a belt? Are you MAD?”
No, not madness. The magic windcheater could be rolled up and tucked into its own pocket and the pocket was then turned inside out. By means of a belt hidden inside the pocket, you could now wear it around your waist. If this is what going to school meant, I thought, then I am SO there.
At the time of my debut, Dripsey national school was a standard issue 1960s-built school. A dusty yard, brown tiles on the floor, and high windows to prevent children from looking outside and being distracted by the rain and crows. It also had two prefabs where Master Desmond taught the fifth and sixth class such essentials for life as the location of the sugar beet factories of Ireland and three reasons why the Fenian rebellion of 1867 failed (For the record it was bad weather, poor leadership and the compulsory Spy In The Camp). Fifth and Sixth class were a mysterious group – huge men and women with bicycles and watches. We gazed on them in awe. Prefabs were also the location of Bold Boys – some of whom once broke a sink in the toilets. To this day, I still remember the aftermath of that incident. We thought society was collapsing.
Back in Infants, my first teacher was the redoubtable Mrs Roche – one of the finest exponents of Fingers To Your Lips to have ever graced the teaching profession. Fingers To Your Lips was a powerful teaching tool. Try it for yourself. Pick a topic – start talking about it, then put your fingers to your lips. You stop talking. It’s uncanny.
Early in my primary school career, I found that by removing my finger from my lips I was able to continue talking. When this happened I was put facing the wall. Facing the wall was a depressing punishment. You could hear all sorts of educating and Ladybird books and hubbub behind you, but you couldn’t join in – rather like being refused entry by a bouncer. The situation was made worse one day when my older brother – whose job it was to bring in the milk – arrived in the classroom during one of my episodes. As the class sang out – Seo é Fear an Bainne (Here comes the Milkman), his gaze was diverted to where I stood, stewing in shame over by the Nature Board.
To his credit he never said a word about the scandal I had brought on the family. Not one word. Until, that is, he described the incident during his Best Man’s speech at my wedding – a textbook example of biding one’s time.
While learning your ABCs and Sums is important, Junior Infants teaches you many valuable, less obvious life-skills. The laws of supply and demand, globalisation and specialisation were learned at Big Break. For eight years, my sandwiches contained mainly L&N cheese singles. Another boy used to get nothing but Mikado biscuits. Not only did I not like cheese, I was afraid of it. Both parties had what the other wanted so a deal was hammered out. Complex carbohydrates and a vague form of calcium went in one direction; biscuit topped with marshmallow, coconut and jam went in the other. Everyone was happy. Particularly the other boy as he grew by an entire foot during Infants, while my parents wondered as to why I wasn’t thriving despite all the nutrition I was getting.
As well as Business Studies, we also learned about street crime and vigilantism (The Three Billy Goats Gruff), pregnancy cravings and being blinded by thorns (Rapunzel) and the perils of edible houses (Hansel and Gretel). Ladybird Books have saved countless children from peril. The statistics bear this out. From my class of 1982, not one person has been attacked by a troll, climbed up a tower using a woman’s hair or been boiled by a witch.
Not all Ladybird stories age as well. Rumpelstiltzkin, for example, would not pass muster now. The miller’s daughter would have a much easier time guessing his name now – a simple Google of “strange little man”, “able to spin gold” would have done the trick.
For the little shnookums starting this week, what lessons can Ladybird teach them? It would be nice to see a new generation of books with titles such as ‘The Prince and the Hangover’, ‘The Fox, the Hen and the Tattoo That Dated Badly’ and Ali NAMA and The Forty Thieves.
But for now, there is no need worry about anything. The class of 2010 should have nothing to fear – apart from cheese.