Every Sunday just as the final Angelus bell faded away, my mother would bring a large pile of shirts, sheets and trousers into the sitting room and begin ironing.
I watched this ritual armed with a bowl of dessert, pretending my spoon was a tall ship sailing the choppy waters of the
. Angel Delight Sea
Each week I waited patiently for a flicker of emotion from my mother as she powered her way through the laundry basket load.
And then, one day, it came.
A single tear zig-zagged its way down my mother’s face as she ironed a small, but particularly smart jumper I’d never seen before.
My dad came in and sat me on his knee.
“School for you tomorrow,” he said. “Your mother and I are very proud of you.”
The following morning I skipped down the avenue with my parents without a care in the world until the school loomed into view.
It seemed to me to be the image of Mounjoy Prison, a photo of which my Dad had shown me once in the paper.
My mood quickly changed and with every step, a sense of trepidation began to build as my legs got heavier and heavier.
The school was swarming with chattering parents and confident children who either ignored me or stared at me like I was an alien.
I heard someone shout ‘specky-four eyes’ and I nervously adjusted my thick, black-framed glasses.
‘Woody Allen wears them,’ my mother had soothed when she had bought them, but whoever Woody Allen was, he didn’t seem to be in my class.
“Dad, I’m afraid,” I whispered.
“You’ll be fine,” he said, his grip tightening. “Everything will be OK once you’re inside.”
“Inside,” I wailed. “That’s what they say about prisoners in Mountjoy.”
“What are you talking about?” my dad said sharply, pulling me towards the school door.
“I want a hug,” I shouted in desperation to my mother, who stepped forward and lifted me into her arms.
It was then I seized my chance.
As she cradled me, I managed to swing round and jam one of my feet deep into the old wooden school door frame. Stunned, my mother let go and I span out of her grasp, suspended upside down by my foot, like a spider monkey clinging onto a branch with its tail.
Children ducked underneath me on their way into school, laughing and pointing as they did so. My dad rushed forward to help. I heard him apologise. “It’s his first day away from us,” he said softly.
These experiences came into sharp focus when it was time for my 5-year-old son to go to school.
The night before, just after the RTE news, I started ironing Samuel’s uniform. He was busily playing on his Nintendo.
Siobhan, my wife, came in and sat him on her knee.
“First day of school tomorrow,” she said. “Anything special you’d like in your lunchbox?”
Samuel perked up.
“A SuperMario game?” he replied cheekily.
The following morning we all walked to school together. But as we approached the school building, all those old feelings and memories began to return. My mouth felt dry and I started to feel butterflies in my stomach.
“Hi Samuel,” shouted a boy with spiky hair.
“Hey Luke,” Samuel replied casually.
“What, who’s he?” I asked excitedly.
“He was in my Montessori.”
“Don’t you want to play with him?”
“Yes, maybe later,” Samuel said.
As we approached the school gates, my wife went over to talk to the teacher. Suddenly all the emotions I had failed to deal with as a child came rushing to the fore and I began to cry.
My son held my hand.
“It’s his first day away from me,” he told all those who expressed concern. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll see you at lunchtime.”
And with that he was gone.
We have crèches and play schools, Montessoris and play groups and from an early age kids become accustomed to each other and learn how to interact. In my day, you just pitched up at school and hoped for the best.
When I asked my son how his first day had gone, he said:
“It was fine. Thanks for coming.”
Which was great!
Because that was exactly what I had said to my parents 40 years earlier when they’d collected me from my first day at school.