I was weak at everything in school - I know because the nuns told me
Hilary Fanning: At school, I was ‘weak’ at everything but unexpectedly here I am a mature student at Trinity College
Trinity College Dublin wasn’t for girls like me. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images
Last year, in the middle of all the exhaustion and dislocation of my mother’s final illness, I applied for, and was accepted on to, a masters programme. I was staggered. I’d never been to university. I was sure they’d say no; sorry maybe, but no. When they said yes, I worried that I should defer. My mother’s condition was disimproving; I’d be a fool to think I could take on something else.
In the end, her timing was impeccable. I about to make the call to the college when she died. She left, emptying out the life I’d known but gifting me new time that I felt compelled to use.
Less than a month after her departure, I walked under the archway of Trinity College and found the lecture theatre where I would meet my teachers and fellow students.
When I was a child growing up in Dublin, I thought you needed a special pass to walk under that archway. I thought you could be turfed out for being “weak”. And I knew that was what I was: weak. I was weak because the nuns told me I was weak.
School reports from the convent, from the ages of four and five and six and seven and eight and nine and 10 and 11, all said the same thing: weak. Weak weak weak. Irish: weak. English: weak. Maths: laughably, pitiably weak. Art: has potential. Attendance: weak.
When I did drag myself through the classroom door, usually late and with a pain in my stomach, the nun would raise a naked eyebrow and rub the X off the register.
The nuns expelled me in sixth class because my father couldn’t pay the fees of the private junior school he had insisted on sending me to. I assumed they’d expelled me because I was stupid.
Eventually, I went to a non-fee-paying convent secondary school, run by a different, kinder brand of nun. I stopped worrying. I was happy there. I learned about friendship. I learned to smoke cigarettes. I carried a homework notebook around, empty bar the lovingly tattooed names of doe-eyed boys who sauntered past the school gate in cheesecloth shirts and faded Levi’s, and whose mouths tasted of pilfered whiskey during a Saturday-night slow set.
The honours Leaving Certificate English class was reserved for girls in the higher streams. I wasn’t one of those girls. Maybe TS Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock was on the Inter-Cert paper, maybe it wasn’t. I can’t remember. But I remember reading it. I memorised Eliot and, around the same time, all the lyrics on David Bowie’s Hunky Dory (not that Bowie was on any curriculum).
Eliot and Bowie pushed open a door to stranger terrain, a place from where no wimpled educator could drag you back.
“It’s a godawful small affair / to the girl with the mousy hair,” Bowie sang. “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” Eliot wrote. I was 16; of course I thought they were talking just to me.
I was sitting in a class in college the other day, in that place where I thought I’d never be, and we were talking about writing and how something you might read or stumble across at an impressionable age can halt you, can seep into you. Maybe a song, or a painting, or a story; maybe some stern creed.
What I remember is a feeling that words – words that had for so long been guarded and measured, hidden under inky-black habits, doled out like gold stars to the good girls who could spell them and write them neatly between the pink and blue lines of our exercise books – had broken free. I remember feeling that words had escaped the cage.
I was lucky enough to stay in school to complete my paltry Leaving Certificate. It wasn’t good enough to get me into college, and anyway there was the question of fees – and money, as they say, was too tight to mention.
A friend said to me recently that one of the things we experience after bereavement is a stirring up of the grief pool. Her words resonated with me. The image of a grief pool made sense to me; it felt authentic. I thought of other kinds of loss dropping into its depth, ripples radiating out from its centre.
And now, suddenly, unexpectedly, there is this freedom to dive in, to learn, to retrieve from the depths something that I thought was lost. There was, after all, as Mr Prufrock predicted: “Time to turn back and descend the stair.”