Sometimes it’s funny when you think about it. If my life depended on it, I couldn’t tell you what I had for dinner every night last week. And yet, if I was asked to name every primary school teacher I had between the years 1989 and 1997, I could rhyme them off without any bother at all.
To this day, I vividly recall my first day of school. In those days, Scoil Cholmcille in Letterkenny was referred to quite simply as ‘the Boys school.’ Even though it has since opened its doors to all genders, there’s probably still a few who call it by the name I’ve just mentioned. Old habits die hard, I suppose.
How I remember my first morning in the school is easy to recall because when a local photographer came in to take a snap of the class for a local paper, it was me who Mrs O’Malley placed on her knee as well as said ‘cheese.’ Every now and again, that photo will resurface online and it’s a certainty I’ll get tagged.
Even though I’m a secondary school teacher myself now, my appearances in primary schools, in any capacity, have been quite rare.
I was chuffed however to be invited back to Scoil Cholmcille in 2018 where I was only too happy to meet up with Mrs McMacken. My teacher in second class (1992/93) who happily reminded me “you were a lovely student Jonathan … but you were a disaster for forgetting your pencils,” she joked.
On that particular visit, I couldn’t help but get flashbacks back to the days of Anne and Barry storybooks, making clay figures out of marla and playing games like tig out in the yard. I’d even forgotten some of the everyday terminology like ‘little break’ at 11am and ‘big break’ at 12:30pm.
Anytime I ever hear mention of ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ or ‘All God’s Creatures Got a Place in the Choir’, then I’m instantly brought back to some of the songs we learned during those more innocent days. And nobody will ever forget the excitement of when the teacher would wheel in the TV trolley.
For third and fourth class, some of us were sent over to what was known as ‘the Old Boys School.’ I remember the playground being quite gray and because you’d sometimes see the monks dandering about in their brown robed attire, it kinda felt like you were in a school that resembled a time that Ireland forgot.
Having said that, I quite liked that old building. The desks were very old-fashioned with their bench-like appearance and there was even a little hole in the corner for dipping one’s ink-pen. The ceilings were abnormally high and our view from the window was dominated by St. Eunan’s Cathedral.
After school, the Gable End shop often got a visit. There was no such thing as an orderly queue as kids squished against the counter to place their order for things like Stinger bars, Woppas, Eye-Poppers, Chickatees or, my own personal favourite, a bag of Rosy Apple sweets that cost 30p.
That particular shop used to be located where the revamped Cathedral car park is now but sadly, there isn’t a trace of it to be found anymore. The main building of Scoil Cholmcille also looks so much more modern nowadays and, while that’s great to see, some of us will still remember how it once looked.
When I was about 8 or 9, I used to think that the boys in fifth and sixth class were so old. Their classrooms were on the top floor at the rear of the building and they played on the back yard at break time. They’d moved on from games of tig and played semi-organised games of football; albeit with a tennis ball.
For my final two years of national school, I’d become one of these ‘older and wiser’ pupils, at the ripe old age of 11 and 12. I jest there, of course, but there’s no denying that when you get to that age, it is a kind of cool feeling to know that you’re older than most of the other classes in the school.
What I really liked about this time was the slight sprinkle of independence that the teachers would sometimes give us. In fifth class, Miss Hennessy was kind enough to give me a plus three after I’d completed my self-chosen project on the Beatles. She even hung my poster of the Fab Four up on the wall.
Nearly everybody in the class played football at the break and it was agreed that the best way to pick the teams was with a simple method. The classroom seating was evenly divided so if you sat on the right hand side, you played for ‘window’ and the left were ‘the wall.’ Thus, we had ‘the Window vs the Wall’ rivalry.
In sixth class, Master Cannon (my first ever male teacher) used to give us a weekly task called the News Report. Basically, we had to get one topic from a newspaper and write a report on it in our own words. The rule was that only one sports story a month was allowed.
Even though I tried my best to bend that rule from time to time.
In a way, doing those news reports is kinda like what my bosses here at theLeader have me do now. Regarding the monthly sports reports that we could do, they probably look like time-capsules now because of how I’d write about Robbie Fowler scoring two goals in Liverpool’s 5-1 win at the weekend.
Master Cannon was an excellent teacher. He always encouraged us to pursue what we were passionate about and one day every week, he’d read us extracts from a novel called ‘I Am David.’ A story about a boy escaping from a Nazi concentration camp and his ability to act out the characters voices was mesmerising to all our imaginations.
He also showed us how to do cursive (joined) writing and, to this day, myself and a mate from that class still do our capital Z’s the exact way he showed us.
This was also the year that the school choir did really well in a number of provincial and national competitions. Under the tutorship and conducting of Master Breslin, they even appeared on the 1996 edition of the Late Late Toy Show.
Something which many of that group still love to casually drop into conversion today. To be fair, I would if I had been involved too. Joking aside though, we still owe a lot to the school because it was the place where so many of us formed the friendships which many of us are still a part of today.
Whenever we’re having a beer now and the conversation about primary school comes up, you’d be amazed how quickly people can cast their minds back when you remind them about things such as Friday morning spelling tests, learning your times tables and choosing your Confirmation name.
Just as I wrote that, I remembered that mine was ‘David’, but that there was an avid Manchester United fan in my class at the time who went with ‘Eric.’ No prizes for guessing why there.
Still though, while it’s often more common to natter about the divilment of our secondary school days, the primary ones shouldn’t ever be forgotten either. Scoil Cholmcille has come on leaps and bounds with its modern technology, its more cosmopolitan and multicultural ethos but its still a place of many great memories for so many around the town.
I’m sure it will continue to generate great times for many more kids for many years to come.
Oh yeah, before I forget: Mrs O’Malley, Miss Lillis, Miss Surplus, Mrs McMacken, Miss McGinley, Mrs Quigley, Miss Hennessy and Master Cannon. Not forgetting of course, Master Redden as our principal. Look back at the opening paragraph again and you’ll know what I’m on about there.