"...stories birling ..."
A girl with blond pigtails clings to her mammy’s skirt; another cries manically when her mother departs; a boy wets himself in the commotion; and I watch and take in the foreignness of it all.
It’s September 1980, and right at the centre of my table are fat yummy pencils. I want to lift them and draw, and perhaps even nibble away their ends. I see easels draped with crisp, fresh sheets of paper, and I imagine touching the paper and painting a yellow sun. And then there are the counters and the beads at the side of the room, neatly arranged in boxes like a five year-old girl’s paradise. It’s my first day at school and there’s a lady with black hair. She’s the teacher and she’s new. The sound of her voice is new. It’s a lilting voice that rises like piano keys, the small black keys on the right that make the chirpy sounds. It’s a teacher voice that says things like, ‘Now, children.’
I’ve only ever been ‘a wean’ and in a group of ‘weans’ and now I’m a child in a group of children.
We need to be very polite and listen when she speaks or she will press her foot on the pedal of her piano voice and an echoey sound will bounce off the walls, and so I listen. It’s easy to listen at school.
She teaches us to read and write. ‘I like the dog’, says Peter. ‘Look, it’s a ball’, says Jane. Peter and Jane. Topsy and Tim.
And then the memories fade so that all that remains is a voice; a teacher’s voice.
‘Can I go to the toilet?’
‘You may go to the toilet.’
Was that the same teacher or another? Did they all say the same thing?
It’s 2015 and my son is six. I hear the voice in the corridor and I stop. The voice peels back petals of memories that had been tightly folded like a bud.
She’s speaking in assembly now. She’s addressing the children in her teacher voice, and it tinkles and dances like fairy dust over a room filled with young children. She’s smiling and singing hymns, and her voice is the nostalgia of pink candy floss. The children are unsettled and she waits. She raises a hand and softly conducts her orchestra of tilted heads, ‘Now children. I’m sad that you’re talking when I’m talking. That’s better. Thank you.’
They are all absorbed in her voice, her quiet voice that has cast a spell over one hundred and fifty children. The room is still and the eager children raise their hands and await their turn. I’m five years old again and I want to raise my hand and answer too, but I can’t do it. My eyes flick to the left where I see my son. The answer is glistening in his tormented eyes, his hand firmly locking an arm that won’t be raised.
It’s the last day. The teacher is retiring and the gift of her voice won’t be heard in the same classroom in September 2015. The children walk out of the mobile one by one, with tears gliding down their cheeks and bodies heaving with the emotion of a goodbye hug from their teacher on her last day. Parents wait at the wall. They are mute because she was their teacher too and they are trying hard to repress their tears. A person can’t be reduced to tears: a person can only be raised up by their essence.
And so I was raised to tears as I said goodbye to my P1 teacher, who taught me to read and who taught me to write.
I will be forever grateful.
Snugville Street, Angeline's debut novel is available here.
Scene from Snugville Street
The Wedding Wisp
82 Waterloo Road
The Teacher Voice
The Children of Latharna
The Band Stick
The Bully up the Brae
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Learning the Irish Language.
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