First Day

Secondary Schools (12 to 18 year-olds) here in Ireland re-opened after the holidays today..

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Perhaps it had grown over the summer.

She had passed Kilcoole Community College many, many times, and had never before realised just how big it was. She did now.

It was to be Mary’s first day at Secondary School, and the school was huge. Her Primary School, St Catherine’s, had been tiny, just 120 pupils in six classes. This school had 120 pupils just in First Year.

St Catherine’s had one teacher for each year. She had had the wonderful Miss Kavanagh for the whole of last year (Miss Kavanagh had a husband and four children, but all Primary School teachers are called “Miss”), and on the final day the class had presented her with a T-Shirt with the Class Photo of them and her on the front, and the words “Best School, Best Class, Best Teacher!” on the back. Now Mary would have a different teacher for each subject.

And what subjects. Business Studies. French (an entire class each day! That was so intense that she reckoned she’d be fluent by Christmas). Metalwork. Science. Computers. Something called CSPE (it stood for Civil, Social and Political Education, three subjects in one, which seemed to Mary like cheating). There didn’t seem to be singing, spelling-tests, or chanting the nine-times tables.

There was compulsory gym, even for the unfit kids. This seemed as unfair as having compulsory Theory of Relativity for the less clever ones.

And then there were the size of the pupils. The Sixth Years looked like grown-ups, which of course they were, some of them were already 18 years old. The boys had stubble, and the girls had figures, make-up, and blonde highlights. She felt like a child again.

She was, of course, a child, being just 12 years old, but all through her last year at St Catherine’s when she and her sixteen classmates had ruled the roost she had felt like a grown-up, being Attendance Monitor, picking up and consoling crying smaller kids who had grazed their knees in the playground, saying “aw” when the First Years had stood in their little line on the first day, with their Spongebob schoolbags and their hands tightly inside their mothers’.

Now it would be so different. She and the rest of her year would be the ones that looked like babies. She did not of course have a Spongebob schoolbag, nor did she even have the Harry Potter one which she had used the previous year. Her schoolbag was simple, austere, black, the kind of bag a serious student would wear.

More importantly, the kind of bag that wouldn’t get you noticed, and then picked on.

Unlike the bag belonging to the boy walking ahead of her into class, which had Spiderman on it. Mary knew that Spiderman was popular to all ages, indeed that some adults still collected the comics, but apparently it was cool at school to pretend that liking Spiderman was as grown up as liking Noddy.

The boy also wore short-trousers. Seriously, she thought, he’s practically a walking wedgie.

As they sat into their first class she could see boys pointing him out and starting to snigger. She had known it would be the boys, covering their own fears by hunting in packs and being thoughtlessly cruel. She did not yet know that the girls would form little groups that you would be gleefully part of one week and hurtfully out of the next, without ever really knowing why.

“Nice bag,” said one of the boys. The boy turned red.

“Nice legs,” said a second. The boy turned redder.

“Nice redner,” said a third.

Then the teacher (a man!) walked into the class, the slagging stopped, and Mary was introduced, for the first time ever, to the wonders of the parallelogram.

The morning was a bombardment of information, and at the end of each class they were given homework, school invading your very house. At last, at long, long last the lunch-bell sounded and she went outside.

The boy sat on a bench well away from everyone else. His lunchbox was clenched in his hands, but unopened and upside down. Clearly he was willing to die rather than let any of the boys see the lid.

She suddenly remembered being eight-years old. She hadn’t been at St Catherine’s the whole way up, her family had moved to Kilcoole at the beginning of Second Year and she had arrived into the classroom that first morning with pigtails and a Cork accent, apparently two massive faux-pas (she had no idea what the plural of that word actually was, but had committed two of them anyway). She remembered how lonely she had felt.

She wasn’t lonely here, five of her class from St Catherine’s had come here too and she’d been looking forward to meeting up with them, but she went and sat down beside the boy anyway. She nodded at his lunchbox.

“Batman?” she said.

He looked suspiciously at her, saw her friendly smile, and decided to risk it. He turned over the box, to reveal The Hulk on the lid.

She nodded in understanding, then showed him the lid of her own lunchbox. It had a picture of Jedward on it.

“When I get home this evening,” she said pleasantly, “I will have somehow lost this lunchbox. The fact that I’ve to cross the bridge over the river on the way will probably help.”

He smiled for the first time that day. “Good idea,” he said. “Any idea how to lose a pair of short trousers?”

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