School in the swinging sixties

School in the swinging sixties

The Evil One
Ah hello Mrs O’Brien. I see Mary’s in my class this year. Would you look at the tears of joy on her face. We’ll be doing mental arithmetic in Irish this year Mary. What’s 3786 agus 835 agus 3947569?

If you are over forty-five you might remember this. It probably was not much different in the psychedelic seventies. If you are younger, then all I can say is that your childhood was insipid, wishy-washy and featureless – you lucky swine.  Oldfilibuster remembers the dark days of the “nasher basher” and believes that today’s kids wouldn’t hack it.

Take a sample cross-section of primary school kids from around Ireland and put them in a time machine with the dial set to – let’s say 1968 – they would more than likely crash land back to 2015 reeling like H. G. Wells’ Time Traveler and displaying the severest symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Indeed, if Matthew Arnold had traveled forward one-hundred-and-twenty-five years he would have rightly wondered why the Enlightenment had not yet reached the Irish classroom of 1968.

Over the next week, observe the little tykes in a South Dublin suburb near you – their skinny, tanned legs climbing out of four-wheel drives. They are wearing precision tailored uniforms that would pass muster with both a five star general and Miranda Priestly – designed to make even the most gormless kid look smart. In 1968 we wore our ‘coloured clothes’ to the ‘nasher basher.’ Your sense of self-esteem depended solely on the fashion sense of your mammy.

In 1968 every day was a depraved hair day. The solution was the same for everyone – the hair band – shove it out of the way and stay in denial. It did show off your terrified little face though – just look at the stock 1scared960’s school photos with your arms folded across the desk and a pretend grin on your innocent, chubby face – more of a grimace really – certainly nothing akin to the look of defiance (maybe even scorn) in school photos today, where all the kids look like they are on a fashion shoot for Runway magazine. In 1968 we all felt stupid even though we all looked like nerds; crazy wha?

If you showed 1968 kids a modern lunchbox they would not have recognised the contents. They would have stared wide-eyed at hummus and carrot sticks, bruschetta and olives, pitta bread stuffed with turkey and peppers, Cajun chicken wraps, and bagels filled with salmon and cream cheese. Where, they would wonder, is the familiar banana, processed cheese, jam, ham or corned beef sandwich in the Johnson Mooney and O’Brien wrapper? Spongy apples and the odd Club Milk or packet of Tayto have long since been replaced with mango slices, blueberries and rice cakes – brain food, apparently. The culinary landscape has shifted radically since the 1960’s. The beverages of choice for 2015 kids are smoothies or sparkling fruity water. It has transpired that the drink of choice for 1968 kids – red lemonade – was found to contain a few too many of the wrong type of chemicals.  And how would you explain bottled water to the 1968 kid? Especially if it did not contain an equal measure of psychedelic orange squash – now that was the stuff to give your teeth their marching orders. Sure what with those steak and kidney pies in the tin and a preponderance of reconstituted ‘convenience food’ from potatoes to deserts to curries, it’s a wonder anyone over the age of forty-five is remotely healthy or intelligent.

Anyway, I digress – back to school we go. The contents of a 2015 multi-coloured backpack and pencil case would have served an entire school in 1968. I find myself lingering far too long in school supply stores salivating over the displays and retrospectively desiring ownership of sparkly gel pens, highlighters and multi-coloured academic ‘organisers’. This is why their bags are so heavy today and why ours were so light back then. But which is worse? The psychological burden of ever-present fear or the guilt of owning too much stationary – and that brings me nicely to the ‘evil one.’

Dowdy clothes and unkempt hair melt into insignificance when we remember what was waiting for us at the school gate. Don’t be fooled by the smile on her face. That was whipped out for the parents, the school inspector and the parish priest. The ‘evil one’ never ran out of valid reasons for whacking you with her thick cane.

  • You were two minutes late
  • You stepped out of line in the yard
  • You laughed too loudly
  • You talked too much
  • You moved too quickly
  • You moved too slowly
  • Your dress was too short, or horror of horrors, sleeveless!
  • You looked at her ‘in a funny way’
  • You didn’t do your homework
  • You did your homework the wrong way
  • You failed to understand Irish grammar
  • You couldn’t remember your catechism
  • Your little, shaking hand blotted your headline copybook
  • You just happened to be near her when she was angry

The other teachers were only a half-step further up the pedagogical and sensitivity ladder than the ‘evil one’. They were middle-aged, ugly, hairy and scary. They biffed us with rulers if we couldn’t do mental arithmetic like automatons.  They frothed at the mouth before biffing us with rulers if we ‘answered back’. In those days, if you didn’t have a photographic memory, you were doomed. Creativity or imagination did not rank on the desirable list of skills. No, you would only survive relatively unscathed if you were adept at regurgitating banal lists of ‘stuff’ like the whereabouts of sugar factories in Ireland, the lengths of random rivers or the heights of arbitrary mountains. Think Mr. M’Choakumchild rather than Mr. Chips. If you stood out in the wrong way you were ‘in for it’. If you stood out in the right way you were paraded as a paradigm of perfection that every other unworthy snot-nose had to aspire to. This object was also known as the teacher’s pet, and one was kept in every classroom.

Ah but sure listen wasn’t it grand really? Just like the inmates of Colditz, we had our little survival techniques. There was never any shortage of willing volunteers to ‘flush the toilets’, pick up the litter in the school yard, or ‘mind the babies’. Anything was preferable to being in a room with Miss Trunchbull’s crueller sister.

©Copyright Berni Dwan aka Oldfilibuster 2014, 2015

Read a more poetic oldfilibuster school experience on: Memories jolted in an empty doctor’s waiting room