First Day at School
I kept telling myself to be brave but it wasn’t working. In fact, I was shaking in my shoes as I watched the scruffy looking kid with dirty blonde hair and a snotty nose get ever closer.
I’d been watching him for more than a minute, making his way along the queue of primary school students, many of them first-timers, like me. He looked mean and, by the way he shouted at the other kids and roughed up the smaller ones, I could tell he was a nasty piece of work.
I was petrified.
It was a quarter to nine and there must have been well over a hundred kids all in various degrees of slouch as they waited in an untidy line for access into the playground of St. Joseph’s Primary School. Some bounced balls against the black stone wall, a couple of girls played hop scotch and others raced around playing tag. Most just stood around chattering noisily and eyeing off the newcomers, those for whom this was a painful first day at school.
I watched nervously as Snotty Nose grabbed a younger kid by the shirt front and demanded he hand over any sweets he had. The kid protested saying he had none and got a rough slap across the ears for his trouble. I could feel my knees tremble as the bully drew level and turned his sneering face towards me. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I was probably an outstanding target for anyone wanting to vent their spleen on a lesser mortal.
With scrawny body and skinny legs to match, I was wearing a maroon beret than mum insisted made me look ‘intelligent.’ My white, matchstick legs poked out of grey flannel shorts and ended in black wooden clogs which, when I walked, gave the impression that they were about to pull my poor legs from their sockets!
“Gimme yer chewy,” he demanded, seeing that I had chewing gum in my mouth and that I was chomping on it vigorously to alleviate my nerves. As a six year old in a new country, I was totally in awe of all the older local kids.
My family had arrived in Northern England just two weeks before Christmas and we were living with my grandma and grandad, mum’s parents. Today was to be my first day of schools after the Christmas break. Everything was so strange apart from the lousy weather which was depressingly similar to what we’d left behind in County Mayo!
The bully had me completely frozen with fear as he was bigger and older than me and pushed his ugly face into mine, demanding a response. I opened my mouth to say something but could scarcely form the words. When I did manage to babble something about not having any more chewing gum, he erupted in a scream of derision.
“Hahaha, we got a bloody foreigner ‘ere – can’t even speak proper English, he can’t. Say that again, kid! Where you from, you bloody foreigner?”
I could understand his heavy Lancashire accent no better than he could understand my thick Irish brogue and that wasn’t going to be any help in this situation. I tried to say something again but found myself blabbering incoherently. Then, to my horror, the bully reached into his trouser pocket and produced a shiny red pocket knife which he proceeded to open with a flourish. I almost wet myself!
“You’re probably hiding a packet of chewy under that stupid looking beret,” he sneered and reached out, grabbing the little wick on top of my beret between the thumb and finger of one hand while he deftly sliced it off with the penknife in the other!
“OK, that’s enough!” The girl’s voice was strong and harsh and I recognised it immediately. Moira, my older sister, stepped in from behind me and gave Snotty Nose a rough push in the chest which was strong enough to send him staggering backwards. A cheer went up from all the kids standing close by. Moira was 3 years older than me, about the same age as my assailant, but she was tall for her age.
“You leave my brother alone or you’ll have me to deal with!”
I could hardly believe my ears but here was my big brave sister sticking up for me in front of the whole school! The bully’s face turned scarlet with rage and embarrassment – embarrassment at being humiliated by a mere girl! He regained his balance and made a lunge at Moira but was stopped in his tracks as she swung her school satchel in a wide arc and caught him fair across the face. That blow sent him flat on his back and he was obviously seeing stars.
Just then the school bell rang and the sea of kids surged forward through the gate and headed for their classes. Talk about ‘Saved by the bell…’ Moira turned briefly towards me and gave me a wink. “See you at lunch time kid,” was all she said and disappeared into the crowd.
I shuffled along with a score or more other first timers towards the principal’s office, as previously instructed, and it was here that we were given the induction speech by a bespectacled Mr. Grimsby, a large, imposing man in a grey double breasted suit. The speech basically consisted of a list of does and don’ts and the corresponding punishments for anyone foolish enough to disregard them. We were then marched down the corridor to our new classroom where we were introduced to Miss Snape, the teacher charged with our education for the next twelve months.
Miss Snape reminded me of a stork with wire rimmed spectacles on the end of its beak. She walked like a stork, too, seeming to be pulled along by an invisible string attached to the end of her long beaky nose. Our new teacher allocated us seats at the old oak desks which smelled of plasticine and glue. Next came her little speech which was almost a repeat of Grimsby’s but with a few embellishments. The message was the same though – do as you’re told, don’t step out of line, talk out of turn or think outside the box. That was how things were done in 1950.
The first lesson of the day and for countless days hence, was Religious Instruction. It was through these classes that we learnt of the omnipotence of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, the mystery of three gods in one – Father, Son and Holy Ghost and how god the father sent his only son to redeem us, the wicked, evil human race from our sins and the power of Satan. At least RI wasn’t too taxing on the brain since we weren’t expected to understand these holy mysteries – we just had to accept them as true and without question.
The next lesson, Maths or Arithmetic as it was called then, was all together different. We were actually expected to learn something and come up with answers which were either right or wrong – no ‘maybes’ where numbers were concerned. I hated this subject and never did well in it though a good memory came to my rescue on many occasions.
It was towards the much-anticipated end of the Arithmetic lesson that Miss Snape, preceded by her beak, made a beeline towards where I was sitting.
“Stand up child,” she spat. Already traumatised by the events earlier that morning, I could scarcely believe that I was in the firing line again. ‘This is really not my day,’ was the thought that shot through my mind as I squirmed up from my seat.
“Am I mistaken or are you actually chewing gum in my class?” she demanded. “Ye-yes, miss,” I stammered.
“Get out here in front of the class,” she ordered “and throw that filthy gum in the waste basket!” I did as instructed.
“What’s your name, boy?”
“Kevin Hogan, Miss,”
“Well, Kevin Hogan,” – she mouthed my name as if she were eating a turd – “the next time I catch you with gum or anything else in your mouth, you’ll get six of the best. And that goes for the rest of you lot,” she whirled around pointing the ruler she was wielding at the class who sat there wide-eyed in terror. I started to edge my way back to the relative safety of my desk when she turned on me again.
“Where do you think you’re going?” The bespectacled beak stabbed the air in my direction then, before I could muster an answer, “Get into the corner behind the blackboard and put your hands on your head. You can stay there for the rest of the lesson.”
For the next forty minutes I endured the discomfort of having to keep my hands clasped on my head but I smiled to myself at having escaped the greater torture of unfathomable numbers.
Finally, the school bell rang to herald the midday lunch break. Having learnt my lesson, I stayed put until the stork gave me permission to join the other students exiting the classroom.
Once in the playground, we all congregated on a low stone wall under an old sycamore tree and unpacked our lunches. Mum had done corned beef and mustard pickle which she knew I liked and, as a special treat, a slice of Christmas cake that had survived the Festive Season. I was chuffed to realise that my run-in with Miss Snape had conferred something of a badge of honour on me: the first kid to cop a punishment in the new term and I wallowed in the notoriety. But at the same time, I was as nervous as a bandit in a barroom and kept my eyes peeled for the snot-nosed bully in case he came looking for me. I breathed a silent sigh of relief when I noticed my brave sister Moira just a few yards away chatting and laughing with her own classmates and knew she was keeping an eye out for me.
Though not completely unscathed, I had survived my first morning at school.
Then the bell rang again signalling the end of lunch recess.
As we traipsed back to class I wondered, what would the afternoon bring?