By Kenneth Knight

My grandson is about to start school for the first time and it got me thinking about this major event that has changed so much over the years and yet has essentially stayed the same.

For people of an older generation there was most likely a ‘thrown in at the deep end’ aspect to the beginning of school. Taken along by your mother (fathers much less likely to be involved than nowadays), you were pretty quickly left with one teacher and thirty or forty other ‘new starters’.

Everybody just had to get on with it and, to be quite honest, maybe the teachers preferred it this way. Youngsters are much more likely to act up if mums or dads are near at hand.
Now, of course, it is a much more hands on affair. Mum and dad go along, phones in hand to record the historic event and for the first hour or so there are probably as many adults in the class as kids, what with parents, teachers, assistant teachers and maybe even extended family members. In some schools you would even have television cameras and the events would make the evening news bulletins.

However it is all intended to settle the little ones in, although they may appreciate the attention a little more a week or so later once the initial buzz has gone. By that stage there is just a routine to it that stretches away in front of them for what seems like eternity but will pass in the blink of an eye.

Of course for older generations school was such a huge step since it was probably the first time you hadn’t been at home playing all day. All of a sudden you were in a much more structured environment, with rules and bells and times for lunch.

Many modern children have already experienced crèches and play school and so have some idea of the concept of a structured life. It makes the transition for them much easier and the overall experience nowadays is much more ‘user friendly’.

Also, the classrooms nowadays are more welcoming. Bright and cheerful places compared to the more austere nature of schools in the past. Even the schoolbags and lunchboxes the kids use are happier looking.

Colourful and often reflecting a current theme or cartoon hero, they make the old leather satchels seem boring and dull, even though they were no doubt longer-lasting.
The amazing thing is that of all the youngsters starting school at present, most of them will forget the detail of this momentous day. I suppose that’s what we all want, for them to get through this and not remember it with any significance. If this happens then it must mean that things went ok.

A cousin of mine for example had the opposite experience. She can remember with absolute clarity her first day at school. The reason? Well, things didn’t go to plan. She’s in her late forties now and she was starting school at a time when the whole experience wasn’t as child-centred as nowadays.

She was brought along by her mother of course, who had a pair of twins two years younger in tow also. This wouldn’t have helped her own frazzled state and as a result the poor woman brought her daughter to the wrong class.  

Nowadays this would be spotted in an instant, in fact she’d probably have a line of people directing her to the correct area of the school. But in those faraway days, well one small, quiet child among a sea of boisterous others, all glad to see each other after the summer holidays and all looked after by one overstretched teacher – you can hardly blame the poor woman for not realising she had one child in her class who should not have been there.

My cousin’s correct teacher was just as stressed as her colleague and it took an hour or so for the mix up to be corrected. By then, Pamela my cousin, had quietly taken a corner of a desk and was probably just coming to terms with the awfulness of school life when she was unceremoniously yanked out of this class an installed in the correct one.
She said she felt like the new girl even though all the others had only an hour’s start on her and she says that the trauma of starting school twice on the same day has had a dreadful effect on her.

So for all the little ones starting on this great educational journey the hope must be that, whatever about any other day, the first one fades gently from the memory.

Read memories like these every week in Ireland’s Own