The chalk usually broke when I was called up to the blackboard to work out a sum. It was probably because I gripped it so tightly in my hot little fingers as I tried to figure out what to put down next. Most of all I was nervous of Mrs. C. standing beside me, tut- tutting about my poor mathematical ability. Her portly figure filled the space between the dusty blackboard and the fireplace; she would poke the fire in exasperation when I was making no progress with the problem on the board. The turf sods responded with a shower of sparks, our milk-bottles circled around the heat almost danced for joy, but no flash of mathematical inspiration would come to me. The misery usually ended when she dismissed me, and I slunk red-faced back to my seat.
She would call up someone like wee Jack who we all knew was not too bright; she would tell him what to put down on the board. It seemed unfair at the time, but you couldn’t begrudge wee Jack a few moments of glory, because school for him was one big struggle …
The ‘unitary method’ sums were the worst; the three men doing a job in four days, and how long would it take five men to do it. You had to reduce it first to one man doing it, and then bring in the five. Of course my father always said that the more men you had in a field of hay, the less work was done. I couldn’t argue that with Mrs C. because she didn’t like my father, there was something about a political difference between him and Mr C. Fortunately she didlike my mother, so that sometimes helped me to avoid disaster.
English grammar was another minefield, especially ‘parsing and analysis’. Words were parsed to within an inch of their lives, and sentences analysed into clauses and sub-clauses. How Mrs C. would have loved the recent best-selling book ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’! Apostrophes ranked with angels in her hierarchy, and good handwriting was a cardinal virtue. The headline copybook with pink and blue lines called for a delicate hand with the pen, and a deftness in dipping it into the white inkwell on the desk. My hands were neither deft nor delicate; smudges and blots multiplied. Tippex was unheard of!
It wasn’t all misery however. There were great journeys of imagination around the big wall-map of the world; we would follow the Mississippi like Huckleberry Finn or plot an expedition along the equator. ‘Faraway places with strange-sounding names’ we vied with each other in locating places from Addis Ababa to Zambesi. We invented rich relatives who promised to take us travelling with them when we left school; (it later transpired that wee Jack actually had a rich cousin in Australia who adopted him when he left school). Mrs. C. would smile benignly at our fantasies, and then we would return to the dull real world of the towns of Ireland.
Friday afternoon was the best time in the week; she would read to us, stories like Knocknagow or Anne of Green Gables. The evening sun came in through the long windows, shedding beams of light over the old desks, and across the classroom to the amber-coloured cupboard in the recess on the far wall. There were stored all the school records and roll-books dating back over the years, with most of the entries in Mrs. C.s firm hand-writing … never a smudge or blot there! The remains of the fire would glow in the grate, as the hands of the clock on the mantelpiece crept towards three o’clock; it was a good way to finish the week.
When the day of her retirement came, she was given a great send-off. Parents and past-pupils came, and there were pots of tea and bottles of red lemonade, thick sandwich cakes oozing jam and cream, lots of fairy buns and apple tarts with sticky juicy edges. She laughed and reminisced with everyone, and past pupils teased her about sums and spellings and even being slapped, but we were too near to that to find it funny. Someone quoted from Goldsmith’s ‘Village Schoolmaster’ “if severe in aught, the love she bore for learning was at fault”. That got a great round of applause. Mr B., who had done well in business, made a presentation, and she said he was always good at percentages, knowing the difference between profit and loss. When the day ended and she went out the school door, there was more applause, and we were shocked to see her cry a little; then we felt like crying without knowing why….