My sister claims I screamed for the first six months of my life, without ever drawing breath. I don’t want to boast, but, apparently, I could scream like James Galway could play the flute; on in-breaths and out-breaths alike, with a volume so impressive, the neighbourhood hated me.
I still think it was as a punishment for the screaming that they sent me to school, which I hated with a great, unyielding passion after high babies. Children today don’t seem to hate school, but children today are more easily codded.
I hated school because everything that made sense at home was mocked there, right down to the gaps between the buttons on my cardigan.
OK, my mother was a bit obsessive about draughts and so the cardigan I wore when I was six had 26 buttons down the front, which was a miracle of knitted engineering. It took forever to put on and take off, because, in our house, nothing got pulled over your head without being unbuttoned.
I mean, we had standards…
Despite the protective buttons, in primary school I was always sick, which had advantages (it got me addicted to books, which are cheaper than most of the addictive alternatives and don’t draw the guards on you) and disadvantages (I still don’t know the words to the national anthem, because I was out sick the week they taught it).
Secondary school was worse. Much worse.
Secondary school had Holy Faith nuns who wore a kind of portable roof, from which flowed their veils, plus a leather belt curled at the end from whacking errant students. Errant students, that is, who were not from our family. My mother made it clear early on that if anybody laid a hand, ruler or belt on either of her daughters, she’d see them in court for assault.
This made the nuns love me and my sister like you love bubonic plague, although my sister slithered back into the good books, because she was clever and hard-working and polite. Me, not so much.
If they had decided I was stupid and lazy, all would have been well, but they decided I was clever and lazy, neither of which was true. I sat in Apologetics class in religious knowledge and could understand all the individual words, but get no meaning out of the full sentences.
I concentrated so fiercely in algebra, I thought my brain would squeeze out my ears, but it still made no sense to me. The word ‘declension’, to this day, pleats me with terror.
Irish was dominated by a depressing old bag named Peig and if she wasn’t already good and dead, I’d have done her in.
By halfway through secondary school, I knew I was in trouble. I was like the horse in Animal Farm, working harder and harder to stay in much the same place. I had to get six honours, one of them in Latin, to get into university, and getting into university seemed the way, the truth, and the life. If I didn’t get into university, I would end up in a
pea-canning factory, according to my mother. I loved the idea of a pea-canning factory, but lacked the courage to tell that to Ma.
I had to get those honours, and I was sure only of three: English, art, and history.
The Latin nun — a tiny stab of concentrated venom named Sister Marguerite — had thrown me out of her class a few months earlier, ostensibly because I put a cheeky face on me, but mainly because she was also the sports mistress and I wouldn’t play anything.
Marguerite thought I was pretending to be asthmatic, the same way I was pretending to be stupid. She announced to the class as I departed that she would give up teaching if I got an honour in Latin in the Leaving. My father suggested study of previous years’ exam papers might be productive. I thought exam papers were like hurricanes, random, rather than sequential.
But then a light dawned. The papers had a pattern. A pattern as predictable as a waltz’s one/two/three.
One year, students were asked to translate into English a chunk of Latin written by, say, Horace. The following year, the chunk would be by another writer. The abomination called ‘unseen trans’ involved only four writers. The one coming up in my year was St Augustine.
I checked the issue with my father. If I learned The Confessions of Saint Augustine in English, off by heart from start to finish, then, on exam day, I would certainly spot a couple of Latin words that would clue me into context, and then I could produce my perfect translation, chewed-cud fashion.
Even if I was only fair-to-middling in the other answer, this would push me into honours territory, would it not? My father, a Latin scholar, was baffled by my inability to learn the language, but agreed that this peculiar approach should work.
My mother then worked out that the same applied to French, and brought home from the library an English language version of the set text, a novel called Le Drôle — the Breton equivalent of Peig.
Or so I’d thought, until I started on the English translation and found the sex bits, about which I didn’t tell my mother.
The geography exam papers didn’t have sex in them, but they did establish that, if I was superb on the rest of the world, I could skip Asia. I skipped Asia.
This highly strategic approach to the Leaving Cert was time-consuming and matched what was going on in school not at all. About a year out from the exam, I suggested to my mother that I go to school maybe one day a week. I showed her the roster. She agreed.
When she met Sister Marguerite in Vernon Avenue and the nun told her I was absent from school more often than I was present, my mother looked down from a great height at her and raised an eyebrow. Marguerite knew better than to tangle with that eyebrow. Came the exams and all played out according to plan. Six honours. Entry to college assured.
Did Marguerite give up teaching? No. Did that matter to anyone? No.
I raise all this because somewhere in Ireland are two teenagers who seem to match my final year’s non-attendance at school.
The issue surfaced in court last week and riled up His Honour quite some. His Honour seemed to equate school attendance with acquiring an education. Never true and has he heard of online learning?
But that’s not the worst of it. The judge wants them brought into court — wait for it — so he can “frighten the bejesus” out of them.
Here’s a man who probably boasts a flawless school-attendance record and is covered in third-level degrees. And that’s the height of his understanding of his role.