Remembered: my first day at school
Starting primary school can be a scary business, which is why that first day can linger in the memory many decades later. Ten very different people look back at their first day in “big school”
Minister for Education and Skills
The Minister has strong memories of his first day at St Michael’s in Dublin. “I started ‘big school’ after the Easter holidays of 1952. St Michael’s was a small school in those days, with fewer than 130 pupils. On my first day, my father brought me in at around 11am after the school day had started. We walked through the connecting corridor of rooms in the garden basement of that fine old house that still stands on the corner of Ailesbury Road and Merrion Road. I remember the smell of Jeyes fluid from the brushed timber floors.
“We were greeted by Fr Maguire, the school principal. After a few words, my father left. Fr Maguire tapped on the window of the door of the junior classroom and the teacher welcomed me into a room with about six twin desks. I was given a slate and a piece of chalk and asked to sit beside Tim Crowe. I remember the smell of mala or plasticine and Tim’s friendly greeting and sniffy nose. He remains a friend of mine to this day.”
“All I can remember of my first day is being terrified, absolutely terrified, and finding it a very alien place,” says the former minister for education, who went to school in Athlone. Part of the terror came from the intimidating Mercy nuns: “They were in full regalia with great long veils and starched wimples and great breastplates of white, starched again. They scared the life out of me.”
But O’Rourke was also scared by the sheer noise of so many children in one place. “We had a big gravel school yard and the din on the first day was terrible. I vividly remember the shouts and roars, and how everyone seemed to have a pal but I didn’t seem to have one.”
She wasn’t used to being left to fend for herself. “I was the youngest [in my family] so I suppose I was a bit petted.” But there was salvation at the end of the day when her mother appeared to take her away on her bicycle. “She had a little seat on the back for me and I can still feel myself holding on to her jacket. There’d be no safety straps. I remember seeing her face looking through the railings. And then I was rescued, and away off with me.”
Mary O’Rourke’s autobiography Just Mary will be published by Gill Macmillan in October
Writer and director
By the time John Butler started primary school, he’d already survived a first-day trauma when he began Montessori school the previous year. “On that day, mum had wrapped digestive biscuits in cling film and a jam sandwich and I ate it straight after breakfast. I’d have spent all the time with mum up until that point, so eating the food was probably me acting out, trying to rebel.”
There was no secretive biscuit eating when he started primary school. Instead, his new school opened the young Butler’s eyes. “There were so many kids, about 180 in each year. Growing up is about accepting that the scale of things is constantly increasing, and [starting school] is the equivalent of going away to another country and realising the world is a huge place. You realise that these kids, they’ve all got parents, all got families, and you think, wow, we live in a big, big world. I loved it. I didn’t have much trauma about primary – my back was broken by play school. I’d already been taken to a strange building and left there by my mother.” John Butler’s novel The Tenderloin is published by Picador.
Singer and composer
Julie Feeney has a strong visual memory of her first day in what she describes as “a beautiful country school beside a forest” in Abbeyknockmoy, Co Galway. “I remember sitting in the little red chair, with its red seat and back, and yellow tubes. Tiny little chairs. I remember that very well. And I had an old-fashioned wooden desk. We had a thing called Teach Róisín – a little wooden house in the classroom. You could go into it and there was a little kitchen in it. Maybe three or four children could fit, and it was magical for us.”
She wasn’t scared at all. “My mother was the school principal in the school and I knew she was going to her job. When your parent is the principal it’s very familiar. There wasn’t any fear.”
She was, however, a bit nervous about some of the pupils. “The big girls, the ones in fifth or sixth class, I was a bit scared of them. If I met them now I’d probably still be a little bit afraid of them.”
Sports commentator and broadcaster
“I can’t remember one unpleasant day at school,” says the broadcaster. “Like every other child I was scared when I started – I don’t know what I was scared of. The teachers were very nice.” Magee went to “a small country national school” in Cooley, Co Louth, but it seemed big enough to a boy unused to being around lots of children. “I was the only one at home for a while and I remember thinking some of the children were very bold.”
But he quickly made friends with his new classmates. “I was born in New York and came home just at the start of the war because my parents thought Ireland would be a safe place. Kids would ask me what America was like and I hadn’t a clue. But a sort of mystery surrounded me. Jimmy’s from America. They thought that because I was American I knew Abraham Lincoln personally or I’d helped to build the Statue of Liberty.”
Jimmy Magee’s memoir Memory Man will be published by Gill Macmillan in September
AOIBHINN NÍ SHÚILLEABHÁIN
Broadcaster, teacher and PhD student
Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin was totally unfazed by her first day at Scoil Raifteirí in Castlebar, Co Mayo. “My mum is the vice-principal and she was my teacher,” she says. “So my first day was quite nice. I was an only child at the time and I remember standing at the front steps with mum and my school bag and dad taking my photograph.”
But a surprise awaited her in the school itself. “I was so shocked by other kids crying – I couldn’t understand why they were so upset,” she says. “I didn’t appreciate the fact that my mother was with me for the whole day while they had to say goodbye to their parents. My job was to play with the kids who were really upset. There was one particular boy who was very upset and when his dad had to leave; my mum gave me the task of looking after him. We’re still really good friends.”
Diana Bunici experienced two very different first days at primary school. The first was in her native Moldova, and she remembers not being nervous at all.
She came from a small village and knew lots of her classmates, and her grandmother worked in the school as a teaching assistant. “For me, it was really exciting and something I was looking forward to. I felt totally at home.”
But there was one surprise in store – the required daily nap. “There were mats arranged like a chest of drawers on a grander scale – each drawer was like a bed and you had your own bed assigned to you. I could never sleep and that day I was so confused – why did I have to sleep in the middle of the day?”
When she was eight, the family moved to Ireland, where she had a very different first day. “I didn’t speak English very well at all,” she says. “And I was wearing a uniform, which I’d never done before. I felt completely alien. But through the help of the students in my class and my teachers I felt at home, even on that first day. There was such curiosity because they’d never met someone from Moldova before. They were full of questions that I couldn’t answer because I couldn’t understand them, but it was kind of exciting.”
Nerves, novelty, confusion and excitement – as Bunici says, “in a way, this was a more traditional first day at school”.
Diana Bunici co-presents Elev8 on RTÉ Two
Director of BelongTo, a national youth service for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people in Ireland
If a child is nervous on his or her first day, at least he or she knows that everyone else is in the same boat. But that wasn’t the case for Michael Barron, who started school several months after everyone else.
“I started late because I was sick. I had bad bronchial asthma,” he recalls. “Just one other girl started on the same day. She took a real shine to me but I found her really scary. Whenever I turned around she’d be standing there.” And there was nowhere to hide, because the school was a small one in rural Kilkenny. Barron did settle in, but still found himself missing his grandmother. “She lived with us and I was really close to her as a kid because my parents worked. When I started school I remember wishing I could be at home with her.”
Co-presenter of the Paralympics on Channel 4
“When I started school I felt like I was already grown up,” says Daráine Mulvihill, who is co-presenting Channel 4’s Paralympic Games. “I knew the ropes.”
Gaelscoil na Cille in Ashbourne was familiar to Mulvihill. Not only had she attended a Naíonra playgroup situated on the school grounds, but her mother was a teacher in the school. She believes teachers’ kids are the least likely to cry on their first day. “I think teachers have a certain way with their kids, they wouldn’t tolerate any waterworks. When children get really upset, it could be because they’re getting vibes from their parents – they’re worried about letting them go.”
Her mum wasn’t the only familiar face. “A girl from up the road was born just a month before me and we grew up together and started school on the same day. I have a picture on the wall of my bedroom of the two of us outside the school on our first day – I have my Zig and Zag schoolbag and we both have big grins on our faces. I was dying to get in. We’re still in touch now – I’m coming home for her birthday in a few weeks.”
This young man from Douglas in Cork was one of just three people in the country to get nine A1s in his Leaving Certificate this year, and he is about to start a degree in mathematical sciences in UCC. So perhaps it’s not surprising that he wasn’t scared of starting school. “I just remember the whole thing as a good experience and a good place to be,” he says.
He was unfazed by the hustle and bustle of the classroom. “I don’t think I knew anybody when I started, but it wasn’t long until I got to know them. I was never a quiet child. I was always talking to other people. We spent the day playing with toys and talking to each other.”
As yet another teacher’s child, he attended the school where his dad taught. “I knew I had to be on my best behaviour because I was going into where my dad was working. But I don’t think I was that interested in learning then – I was kind of lazy.”