School days

Vol. 7 No. 1 - 1995

School days long ago

by Emily Hunter

"He's gone to school - wee Hughie and him not four.
Sure I knew the fright was in him when he left the door.
But he took a hand o'Danny an a hand o'Dan.
Wi' Joe's ould coat upon him. Och, the poor wee man!".

That poem always brings tears to my eyes. It takes me back more years that I care to admit. I had not reached four years when my school days started but my memories of those first years are happy ones.

There were three classes and one teacher in that school room. There were desks for two children but quite often three children were crushed in and one class stood in a chalked semi circle on the floor, school bags at their feet. The names were different then - Junior Infants, Senior Infants, First Class. How did that teacher cope with that? What would happen to-day?

We made boats from squares of coloured paper, we drew lines and squiggles until we could form letters and we became plasticene artists. "One and one are two, one and two are three", we droned as we moved matches like cocktail sticks to show how it happened. When the cat sat on the mat the mystery of reading was solved.

Sometimes there were monitors or was it monitresses who were hoping to become teachers and were waiting to go to the Training College in Dublin. They helped the teacher and did what they were told. We treated them with great respect. Those were happy years until the next room was reached. Then life became difficult. I learned how to hold out my hand for a slap with a cane and there was no sympathetic parent to take my part - "You must have deserved it". I did not agree. A good teacher who was also stern grounded us well but I must admit I was always afraid of her and not until I was a teenager did I know that a less dedicated woman would have been on sick leave instead of being at her desk.

Onwards and upwards.

I learned every county in Ireland with their chief towns and every river and every mountain. Then the map of the world was hung on the blackboard and we used a pointer on it. Where have the maps and pointers gone?

Did you ever parse a sentence? You reached that height by means of the parts of speech. For me it was a difficult road for adverbs and prepositions were beyond my ken.

I was now a Senior in the third classroom. We studied "Julius Caesar" not an easy task for ten year olds and I failed to complete the passage "Friends, Romans, Countrymen" at a school concert.

In that classroom we sat at long desks with ink wells in holes at intervals. They were filled with ink and were usually half full of blotting paper. We could now buy oranges at so much per dozen without using our jotters. The teacher called it mental arithmetic but on paper we could work our compound interest and sell stock and buy shares.

Grounded in scripture

Every day the Presbyterians joined the boys' school for scripture and the Church of Ireland boys came to us. For half an hour we were grounded in Scripture especially the trials of Moses and the Jews.

In one Scripture Examination the Minister asked how Joseph recognised his brothers when they came to Egypt for corn. A farmer's son raised his hand, "Please Sir, he saw the name on the cart". Now there are no farm carts on the road, no cart horses but then they were the usual means of transport on farms.

When I left that school I was eleven years old and I knew more than some of the adults who appear on Quiz Programmes on TV. This is not the life story of a young genius. I was a very ordinary child but it is a tribute to dead and gone teachers who for a pittance devoted all their energies and enthusiasm to their work. There was no three o'clock bell. When the teacher was finished we were free but if homework had not been done properly we were kept in to do it. In my class there were clever girls who never had a chance to finish their education and for many a factory provided a living. I have been fortunate to live long enough to see the grandchildren of my classmates in responsible positions -some doctors, University professors and others distinguished in many ways. The good old days were bad old days too.

Wrong spot at the right time

Life in a village school had its amusing side. In Belfast Museum there is a 19th century oil painting of the road that led to the school. In it you can see some cottages high above the road. They had no back door and one very vociferous old lady always emptied her slops from the door, half way down the road. Once an unfortunate companion was in the wrong spot at the right time and had to return home to be washed and changed. The boys on occasion could be adventurous and as the offending vessel was always propped against the wall to dry it was a target for them. Unfortunately the stone was too big and the result disastrous. The Headmaster was confronted by the old lady with her broken china in her hand and a loud complaint. He calmed her by promising a replacement and decided that enamel would be safer.

There was no welfare state then and we had to buy all our books. I have a school book belonging to my Grandmother. It is entitled 'Girls' Reading Book for the use of schools; printed and published under the direction of the Commissioners of National Education, Ireland and sold to Pupils of National Schools at four pence each!! There are 287 pages in it and it covers every aspect of Household Management in addition to passages of prose and poetry. It was published in 1868 and is far in advance of what we learned at the village school.

Everybody walked to school then and some came a long way. Most of the boys were barefooted from May to September and those who could not go home at lunch time brought food with them. I remember fried soda bread was favourite and it had its own aroma. I always envied those whose homes were near. Some sat on the door steps and ate out of tiny mugs. I never knew what they contained but they looked good.

There was one large family whose parents had to work hard to keep them. When they got home a large pot of porridge was waiting. It was placed on the earthen floor and they sat round and enjoyed the communal dish. There was little then but there was always enough.

There to help

In later life I discovered that if there was trouble or illness in any home our teachers were there to help. On one occasion a teacher made a beef tea for an ailing mother and sent it home with one of the children. Next day she asked, "Did you mother take it?". The child replied, "Yes Miss. We all liked it". Isn't it sad we can't turn the clock back.