Sunday, 17 April 2011

What I learnt at school

The only thought that got me through school assemblies as our head mistress droned about the importance of representing St. Michaels Loreto Convent Navan in a respectable lady like manner was the certainty, curled like an angry fist in my teenage dirt bag heart, that as soon as school was finally out, I would escape this stuffy white bread sandwich town, move to the big city and hang out exclusively with gays, freaks and drag queens.

This week I was a bridesmaid at a Pirate themed civil partnership where my dates were a gay comic and a lesbian cabaret singer. I felt about this the way, I assume, some people feel about finally owning their first house.

I didn’t have the best start at Secondary school. First years were assigned final year “buddies” whose job it was help new girls settle into the new school. In my first week I managed to lose my school bag; along with all my books for the year, twice. The second time it happened I was so worried about telling my Mam, I ran away on my bike and tried to persuade my granny to let me move in with her instead. When I sheepishly returned to school I found out my “buddy” had asked to be swapped to a less high maintenance student.

The other girls in my class didn’t seem to have a problem keeping hold of basic belongings. They were popular, had rugby boyfriends, played hockey and could see the teachers point. They smelled of Body Shop vanilla musk, had sensible career plans and lives as organised as their red pen and ruler lined exercise books. I hated them almost as much as I wanted to be them. I actually took pleasure in annoying and irritating them. I pretended to be hungover in class, bragged about how messed up my real friends outside school were and had eating disorders that lasted until lunchtime or until I forgot, like a creepy teenage Geri Halliwell.

On the day before our Junior Cert exams, and our last before the class was split up into new groups for our final years, a well intentioned teacher decided to pass pages around with each student’s name at the top and asked everyone to write their favourite memories of that person anonymously underneath. I was the only one to have a page of pretty much unanimous negative sarcastic comments. In front of everyone I coolly read them, smirked, crumbled up the page and sashayed out giving everyone what I hoped was my best “Later losers, you’ve just made me feel even more like Madonna” expression. I then went home and memorised every single line.

Surprisingly, fame didn’t beckon, my drama teacher hadn’t contacted Steven Spielberg about me, as in my secret heart I genuinely thought he would. I didn’t get to take year off to work in Hollywood and become friends with Danny Devito, so come September I was back in my maroon school uniform. But to my unexpected delight, something magical called streaming had twinkled its magic wand over the summer holidays, skimmed the smug girls away and poured me into as fresh new class.

I was still with the clever ones, but just not the ones that necessarily did their home work every day.
These were a different group entirely. One’s that understood the importance of throwing school bags out a second floor window, that you should interrupt the geography teacher every time she described any large landmass, be it iceberg, volcano or ox bow lake to earnestly ask if it was as big as the ship Titanic. That instead of doing carols it was just funnier in our final year to do a nativity play so I could finally play Mary. Yes we were all seventeen, yes it quickly descended into “Carry on Bethlehem” and yes we got into massive trouble, but no one ever questioned our choice. That rather than maturely seeing her side, the only way of responding to your homophobic religion teacher as she lectured a roomful of teenage girls on the inherent evilness of abortions was by making a frog noise throughout her class, even if it meant having to write out “ I will not say ribbit in class” one hundred times. That we were probably never ever going to use a quote from “To Kill a Mockingbird” in our adult life.

I’m friends with some of those perfect, popular, punch myself in the face out of boredom girls on Facebook now, but they don’t annoy me anymore; I find them fascinating. I press my nose up against their lives, and skip through the pictures; the sensible nights out, the houses bought, husbands wed and it’s like speeding in a train through a place that looks OK but you know you never have to worry about living there anymore.

Like the astronauts that flew to the moon thinking that they were making important scientific breakthroughs when what turned out to be most important were those images of playing golf and skipping on the lunar surface I don’t really remember anything that I learnt academically at school. French verbs, periodic tables or features of coastal erosion haven’t really come up in my life since. It’s the other stuff that’s important and beautiful. In an adult world of deadening days, bored tired people going through the motions and life trying to get you old, what is really useful to know? That jokes matter; they last longer than facts, erupt in your memory like a firework, singing egos and soldering true friendships.There's more honesty, integrity and compassion in one shared office in joke that a lifetime of following the rules. They won’t get you mortgages but they will get you through the day and invites to Pirate weddings.

As we swung back on our chairs, ignoring the teacher and drawing moustaches on each other’s faces, I thought I would finally get grown but maybe there wasn't much else left for me to learn, except possibly algebra.


  1. I'd forgotten all about that vomit inducing fad for vanilla musk. Not that I'm saying you're Peter Kay....

  2. I like pressing my nose against your window.