September brings with it memories of school – schools actually…  It happened twice.  The school, unequal to the baby boom of which I was a part, moved to a brand new site within a year of my enrolement.

My first school had a huge solid fuel stove in the middle of the classroom, beside which third pint bottle of milk would slowly thaw or sour ‘til break when the lucky milk monitor would open them with a plastic dimpled tool made for the purpose and slip straws inside.  The high windows admitted little light and no distraction to study.  The wooden desks with hinged seats and lids smelt of dried up Quink Ink and the tub of Osmoroid dip pens on teacher’s desk, seemed a tool too far for the grasp of a five year old intent on drawing the perfect circle to begin her name. 

The outside lavvies were haunted of course.  The ghost was tough and must have liked the smell of carbolic and used only red Lifebuoy Soap and hard Izal Toilet paper.  The concrete floor was ever awash it seemed.  I used to climb on the little wall next to the railings – so high was it that I was frightened, though the bigger girls would happily jump down.  I never had the chance to test that skill.

One day in a snaky line, hand in hand we walked, the entire school popuataion, along the road and through the park (how those ducks laughed) and were given a numbered peg on which to hang our coats and then taken on a tour of the vastness of it all – there was even an upstairs, forbidden to us younger pupils because we were so small!  Then everything was new and strange except our teacher who was old and strange but lovely.

Photo borrowed from Ballymena Academy website.

Ballymena Academy was 138 years old when I entered its lofty academic corridors to explore the secrets carved in stones and wooden desks.  There were underground cloakrooms, ancient looking laboratories sous-sol, an assembly hall that smelt like old church pews, masters whose chalk-stained, ragged, gowns, the more torn, the more distinguished, flapped like bats along between the buildings.  Some of them seemed ‘batty’ enough to us – the late, great Tom Greenwood for one, who insisted that we modify our ‘Braid’ and desisit from using the glottal stops – bu”er, le”er etc.

Nothing in my little working class existence had prepared me for that first day.  My head hurt from assimilating knowledge and lessons had not yet even begun.  This was ‘lunch’ but not as I knew it.  Mr. Mol intoned;

Benedic, Domine, nos et dona tua,

quae de largitate tua sumus sumpturi.

In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.

Amen answered the chorus. 

I was unsure whether I’d stumbled into some Greek tragedy, a Latin Mass or a Saint Trinian’s meets Billy Bunter film set. 

Trestle tables stretched ad infinitum along the stone floor of the refectory and we ‘freshers’ were interspersed amongst older pupils whose duty it was to correct any ‘infringements of etiquette’ (it being doubtful we were house trained let alone polite).  A member of staff presided at the head of each table and called upon us to collect our soup in single file, then he went first so that he could allow us, graciously, to eat as soon as he’d lifted his spoon. 

‘Bon apetit’ he said. 

Perhaps it was a French Farce, after all.

The soup was delicious, as was the roast beef.  I discovered I didn’t like, ‘Queen of Puddings.’  I also discovered I was obliged to eat it anyway.

Then for the second time in my young life, the walls were expanded.  In this case we moved to a purpose built school with swimming pool, language labs, all weather athletics tracks and tennis courts sound proofed music room and a dining hall with a ‘butterfly’, cantilever roof.  This was another kind of privilege. 

And just as I’d missed the high windows and smoky boiler of my primary school, everything seemed big and new and different once again and I learned a valuable lesson – that , though Steadfastness be its counterpoint, change is a vital part of life – TENAX PROPOSITI.

There was to be no more grace in Latin, no more soup for starters.  Greek was no longer taught.  This was progress.  What I didn’t realise then was that I would treasure most of all the memory of those two antiquated buildings – those schools gone by.  For it was my privilege to be part of a snapshot out of time – to glimpse the end of an era.

For all the teachers who gave me so much and in memory of Mr. Mol who demonstrated that 1+1 does not equal 2 – just for the love of logic.

Amen