Them and us – An Irishwoman’s Diary on the unwritten rules of a segregated education

Even at the school-bus stop everything was segregated without it ever needing to be said. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty

Even at the school-bus stop everything was segregated without it ever needing to be said. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty

 

As in society, everybody knew their place on our rural Northern school bus in the 1980s. There were places where you could sit and places where you wouldn’t dare, and rows of seats beyond which your lack of coolness would mean you’d never pass. Many of us spent years on that bus without ever knowing what it looked like in the back, or expecting to. But that was just how it was, and once the geography was settled after the start of September, we all knew where we were, or weren’t.

The other thing we all knew is that Catholics didn’t speak to Protestants and Protestants didn’t speak to Catholics. That rule, again while never verbalised, was instinctively understood by all and probably the easiest bit of the bus scenario to process. It was also very simple in policing terms: we went to different schools so had different uniforms and, as far as we knew, came from slightly different planets. This identifiable separateness was further emphasised by bags containing sporting accoutrements such as hockey sticks and rugby balls, both alien objects to Catholic school students in our town.

Catholic girls would stay with Catholic girls, boys with boys, and then there might be a smattering of students from Protestant schools who were left to find themselves a place

If you were in the first year of secondary school, these delicate and dysfunctional transport arrangements would last for the next seven years. You would make this bus journey of about 30 minutes roughly 200 times a year, or 1,400 times across your school career. And then you’d do it again on the way home every afternoon, meaning you’d share this sweaty, unventilated, and very unlovely space with the same people on close enough to 3,000 occasions in total. And, with many of them, you would never exchange a single word, or even consider doing so.

In truth, opportunities for conversation on the bus were by definition limited (no circulation, everybody facing the same way, youthful embarrassment), with the usual, strict hierarchy lines by which teenagers everywhere live their lives always observed.

But even at the bus stop in this mostly nationalist area, everything was segregated without it ever needing to be said. Catholic girls would stay with Catholic girls, boys with boys, and then there might be a smattering of students from Protestant schools who were left to find themselves a place wherever it might be available, often alone. The opposite picture presumably existed in areas with Catholic minorities.

It’s hard to tell if anybody was really aware at the time of how mad this all was, but it was the height of our normality, or whatever passed for it.

There wasn’t even any real tension involved: there were maybe two or three “fights” on the bus over the course of my school commuting career, and they probably had more to do with somebody enjoying baiting somebody else’s easy-to-rise teenage temper than any fundamental political disagreement.

The only time it became a little bit weird was when, as we moved towards the final few years of school, the powers that be (or were) started to lorry what seemed like mountains of cash into cross-community educational initiatives for teenagers like us. The spending was backed by a well-intentioned hope that it might force them to actually speak to each other and, maybe then even like each other enough to interact in something approaching a normal fashion. Ultimately, the benefits might be more fundamental.

These endeavours were actually relatively successful, in that time spent together did in fact lead to functional and positive interaction

There would be trips to adventure centres (as featured in the Protestants hate Abba episode of Derry Girls), subsidised ski trips, arts trips to London, poetry workshops, theatre outings, weekends where you were meant to model setting up a business, and many more. The money was so free-flowing that if anybody found a play that featured on the A-level curriculum being performed within maybe a one-and-a-half- hour radius, they could be pretty confident that a grant application would be made, and a bus would be hired to get us there at minimum cost, along with our “opposite” numbers from the other school.

These endeavours were actually relatively successful, in that time spent together did in fact lead to functional and positive interaction. Friendships, good ones, were actually formed, based perhaps on a shared love of Philip Larkin, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or maybe just more on what it might be like to live in a less troubled society. Either way, it was definitely worthwhile, even though this small blossoming only tended to exist within its own confines. It survived exposure to the tainted oxygen of the outside world quite rarely and unfortunately mostly withered as soon as it mounted the steps of the school bus, where steel walls of convention were simply too strong for young minds still steeped in unspoken rules.

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