Monday, February 06, 2006

Don't get ahead of yourself: Crayoned Ohs and Dick and Jane come first, bold boy

I started writing at home when I was about three years of age, I think. The alphabet, written on the wall, was my first "work". This wee piece of precociousness (and unending pestering of my mother) meant that I started school at the age of four, where all thoughts of writing were stolidy discouraged by boxes of crayons and many, many scribbled "ohs". If one was going to write, one was going to write properly.

We wrote on big pieces of white paper, copying the images and characters written on the blackboard by the teacher and trying not to get caught for being bold. "Boldness" is the Irish equivalent of "naughtiness". "Don't be bold" an Irish mother will tell her children.

At school, we also learned songs about "The Bold Fenian Men", which was a little confusing, as these were Nationalist heroes. So maybe it was also good to be bold!

Our desks had brass-covered inkwells, mostly without either inkpot or ink, which was disappointing. It meant that we were kept out of the way of grown-up writing. Books with Dick and Jane were the limits of our literary world, and we toiled furiously to See Spot, See Spot Run, See Spot run with Dick and Jane. One, two three.

I'd almost forgotten about that one. Learning, (one) as we did, (one) about how to read aloud in public, (one) the teacher would get one child to read while another counted pauses out loud for each piece of punctuation. (One, two, three). A comma counted one, (one) while a full-stop counted three. (One, two, three). When we encountered our first semi-colon it counted as a two.

Did you ever hear the radio sketch with the guy making a funny noise for each punctuation mark? Somehow it still sounded hilarious to me, even after our own classroom purgatory of one, one twos, and one-two-threes. If anyone remembers who did it, please let me know. A quick Google search hasn't turned it up.

In time we got to write "Compositions", kept for the school inspector in special copybooks on shelves beneath the blackboard. The teacher cheated a bit here, because she made us write the composition on What I Did on my Holidays in one copy that she could correct and make good, then got us to laboriously transcibe the sanitised version into the "good work" books that the inspectors saw. Performance indicators hadn't been invented, but I think Ms. Egan had a handle on the theory years before their time. Woe betide the kid ("Good man, Woebe!" as Scottish comedian, Billy Connolly, would say) who blotted his good-work composition book. We were still in the days of canings and they were generously applied for all sorts of misdemeanours as well as breaches of the ever-growing body of rules.

No matter how many canes we broke, or disappeared, there were any number of trees outside that made for replacement sticks. The teachers would sit until they could take no further slight, then pick on someone to go outside and find a stick. Maybe the expectation of the victim while he waited for the makeshift cane to appear was a deliberate part of the punishment, or maybe, as I suspect, the teachers were just too ignorant of what they were doing to us all for that sophistication of the torture to occur to them. In any case, it was a system open to corruption. I remember getting the biggest stick I could find one day because I didn't like the kid being punished. It was as thick as a broom handle, and even the teacher thought I'd gone mad! "Sure that would kill him!" he shouted. "Go and get another!" In the meantime, the punishee was waving his fists furiously at me from behind the teacher's back. I'd be hearing from him again at lunchtime or after school.

Do they make kids stand to attention for 40 minutes at a time these days? I was wondering this today as I waited for a bus and my back was twingeing at me. We were made stand around the sitting teacher (probably to act as human draft excluders, if nothing else) for about that length of time while lessons went on on Irish language, or Mathematics, or English. I'm fairly sure my aches and pains started around then.

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