BACK TO SCHOOL Willie McHugh with First Class pupils at Ballycushion NS. Pic: Ray Ryan
The best days of our lives
OSCAR Wilde might have been onto something when he suggested youth was wasted on the young. Children are constantly reminded that schooldays are the best days of their life.
On days of presumed maturity now, when the mind drifts into idle slumber, daydreaming often transports me back to a country school in Ballycushion. Then torturous hindsight slaps me awake and reminds me what wonderful times they were. Didn’t seem so then but we live life looking forward and understand it looking backwards.
It was days of the ‘glantóir’, the ‘clár dubh’ and ‘bhfuil cead agam dul amach?’ It was a military style approach to learning where fun and frolics were frowned upon. But gone now are the glossy wooden desks where we carved our ‘McHugh was here’ engravings for posterity.
The inkwells where we dipped the pens of yesteryear telling of trips to the fair in Shrule or saving turf on the bogs of Browns Island are bone dry. The story gets a new telling now on a laptop today. No scroll type maps of the world, and the Atlas no longer hangs from cup hoops on the dodo rail either. The Berlin Wall came down and they walked on the moon so history and geography transcends groundbreaking boundaries now.
Long gone is the barrier between teacher and pupil. Respect instead of fear is where discipline is at.
Marian Doyle is school principal. She arrives each morning full of unbridled enthusiasm embracing the day ahead. It’s not a put on or temporary impressive pitched pretence. Marian wears no mask. What you see is what you get.
The old classrooms serve a different purpose. Gone is the furniture and the old folding doors that never closed properly. It’s a hall now that doubles as a gym and a recreational area. Here the day begins with dance and exercise routine designed to loosen the body and open the avenues to the learning centre of the mind.
My mind wandered back to Friday afternoon when we pushed back the dividing doors. Friday was dancing day. Miss Fahey arrived from Tuam with an old Pye record player and LP of The Gallowglass Ceili Band. We plundered The Walls of Limerick and lifted The Siege of Ennis. To add a bit of ‘jizz’ to the manouveres, Josie Donnellan or Seamus McDonagh bellowed the odd “yahoo” much to the chagrin of school principal Mrs.O’Doherty. “More dancing and less buck leppin out of ye” was her riposte.
The classrooms occupy where the cloakrooms once were. There’s a curtsy to tradition too. The original teacher’s desk made the transition across the corridor of change. So too did the old school press that we rarely got a look in.
School patron St. Joseph moved further down the hall. In his place hangs a map of Mayo. Marian has a holistic approach to teaching. Talk replaces chalk. The room is organised clutter but there’s purpose to every unchecked move. The blackboard is now a whiteboard and the chalk is a temporary marker. The sound of teacher clapping chalk dust from her hands is just an echo in the caverns of the mind now.
Round tables and individual chairs replace confined desks. Boys sit with girls.
Adam Ryan has it every way but flying because he has the full attention of Katelyn Moran, Caoimhi Farrell and Sinead McTigue in 6th class. I didn’t fare out too bad either. My schooldays were spent sharing a desk with Bridie O’Loughlin from Cloonamealtogue. We kept an eye and ear out for each other. It was on Bridie’s toes I also stepped during dancing lessons. We fondly reminisce on every meeting about those idyllic days when the world was young but we were in a hurry to grow up.
Past pupils like Gerry McTigue, Johnny McHale, Mary Pat Kelleghan and Jimmy Donnellan have been called unexpectedly to the great veranda in the sky. Their parting snapped notches on the strong ties that bind. Others have gone far from here and set their alarm clocks in New York, Boston, Kilmeena, London and Paris now.
But names like Acton, Kelleghan, O’Dea and Moran keep the credits rolling.
Mrs Shally, the school secretary, enrols new family names now like Lydon, Joyce, Healy and Farrell. Grainne Goggins teaches infants, first, second and third class. Veronica Lynagh is substituting for her at present and Marie Farrell is the SNA here.
When Father John Fallon calls on his weekly visit, the VCR takes me back to the times of Canon McEvilly in hat and coat, and he clad like The Sandeman arriving to administer to us. Father Fallon talks about the use, and sometimes the abuse, of mobile phones which proves Ballycushion has kept pace and step with technological advances too.
For the present crop in Ballycushion their ears burn to the sound of Lady Gaga, Jedward and Nicki Minaj. Television programmes commanding their attention are The Simpsons, Zach and Cody and Sweet Life on Deck.
A far cry from Johnny McEvoy and Muirsheen Durkin, The Rolling Stones, Emma Peel and The Avengers, The Virginian or Benjy and Maggie Riordan.
Lunch is mostly fruit, yogurt drinks and neatly cut bread rolls. We ate caiscín bread before crows descend on the schoolyard like vultures to devour the discarded crusts.
Before I leave, the children give a rousing rendition of “The sinking school in Ballycushion Oh.” That the school would sink on the bog it was built on was prophesised by some who hadn’t a kind word to say about it when it was constructed in 1964. It didn’t and it never will. Ballycushion School has stayed afloat as an illuminated beacon of survival in this humble outback. It’s evolved and unfolded with lovely new chapters.
Marian Doyle is a facilitator rather than a teacher in this wonderful hub of learning. They don’t teach the children what to think during the best days of their lives in Ballycushion now. They teach them how to think.
And if only they’d taught us how to turn back the hands of time.