Sometimes I have found myself in trouble with authority. I say ‘found myself’ because it’s often been a surprise. I’ve never set out to get ‘in trouble’ and I always find it slightly embarrassing at first. My instinct, I think, is to side with authority.
This attitude to authority may have been formed early on in school which I loved, until I was about twelve years old.
I grew up in the countryside outside Navan, but attended secondary in the town. Even at the time our primary school seemed like something from another era. We were exceptionally innocent. In our final year, aged 12, I remember us girls and boys holding hands and singing as we ran through the fields. I think I would have cried for anyone who smoked. At home I once fell to my knees and prayed that drugs would never enter my life.
Secondary school in Navan seemed a real change but I adapted quickly, I thought. It seemed exciting. None of it was that hard except for Maths which I claimed to find difficult.
This affectation had begun when I was about 9 with a teacher called Mr. O’Donoghue, a singular man in retrospect. He spent most of each day playing his keyboard and often invited me to join him. He also had the desks arranged so every single one of us was faced away from the blackboard, and him. We would sing gaily while everyone else chatted. It was a completely accepted fact that you ‘lost’ a year when you came into Mr.O’Donoghue’s class.
One Maths class I was summoned to the blackboard to solve a problem. I can’t remember any of the details, but basically I got mixed up and he began to laugh.
To my continuing shame I could not resist making him laugh again, and so further messed up the problem. Taking Maths seriously was not for me, I concluded.
So, in our first Christmas tests at secondary school I did very well at everything except for Maths which I failed.
But it turned out everybody had. In fact, my fail was quite respectable. My new best friend Caitleen had done terribly and she began to weep beside me. Her mother was a teacher and would be livid. The Maths teacher, Mrs Dolan-Cunningham took Caitleen outside.
Miss Dolan – as she was known - was very overweight with creamy skin and black curly hair. She wore strong perfume, smoked, and though often late, moved at a stately pace, sweeping into the room. She had long nails, and wore a lot of rings. At that point I didn’t have much else to say about her or her personality. I would have thought we had made little impression on each other.
In the corridor Ms. Dolan told Caitleen she shouldn’t sit beside me in school anymore, and she would tell her mother this too, teacher to teacher. I was a bad influence, and would always do better.
My reaction was one of horror when I heard this. I was 12 years old and loved Caitleen with a slightly ridiculous intensity. I wanted her to flourish. I couldn’t understand how I could represent anything negative to her.
It seems incredible now, but that conversation precipitated a long and awful sequence of events. We weren’t to sit together anymore in Maths, and after a time I wasn’t allowed sit beside her in other classes either.
The injustice of this arrangement really upset me. We shared the same group of friends but they were mostly her old school friends, and things got very bitchy. I became friends with another girl, who was older and wilder, and, meaner.
We embarked upon a somewhat comic crime spree; mitching, copying keys from the school and stealing things, we broke into the school church, pissed in a chalice, and accidentally set the altar on fire. We got away with most of this but were eventually caught in town ten minutes before the end of school and suspended for one day.
This was major.
In our school it was very unusual to be suspended. I remember crying and other girls patting my arm and saying it was going to be alright. But it wasn’t. I knew that, and I was correct.
Suddenly for the first time in my life I was friendless. My partner in crime was rich, and her friends were pony club girls. She blamed everything on me, and soon she was back to hunt balls and pony camp. I was seen as trouble. Nobody wanted to talk to me anymore.
To be honest it’s still painful to think about how I spent the next year and a half. It was unrelenting. I sat on my own every day in school. Sometimes people pretended they had saved a seat for someone else rather than sit with me. I’d hear people talk about going out, or into town. I was never invited. I spent every lunch-time on my own. It’s almost laughable now in its pathos, but I rented a violin and learned to play so I’d have something to do then. I practiced in a semi-underground music room and watched everyone outside. You couldn’t script it.
I was terribly self-conscious. I felt my loneliness was lit neon everywhere I went. I’d never experienced something like this before. School was a safe place. I’d fallen foul of bullies plenty of times but always had friends, and made new ones easily.
Things weren’t great at home either. I was extremely unhappy. In hindsight I may have been depressed. I cried constantly. I knew I would do my Junior Cert, move classes, and then leave school but I couldn’t see how anything could be enjoyable again. It was a different era, and there was no concept of talking about your feelings. There wasn’t really a culture of self-harm or suicide either. Perhaps this was a good thing. I couldn’t imagine any alternatives. So, I just went on, I suppose.
There was a climax. And, it involved Miss Dolan again. By then I was fourteen years old.
I used to always arrive in class right before it started. That way I wouldn’t have to spend much time either sitting on my own, or seeking a seat beside someone. I could slide in anywhere.
I had done this today and remember having a couple of sentences of conversation with the girl next to me and feeling upbeat as a result. I smiled at Miss Dolan as she swept in for Maths.
Was it that gesture?
She shouted, “Quiet.” We all looked up expectantly.
And then she looked down at me, and asked me to stand up.
I stood, a little uncertainly.
“Sinead,” she said. “Who are your friends here?”
I didn’t understand.
She leaned back and smiled, and said slowly:
“Sinead, who are your friends here? Point out your friends.”
There was no need to look around. I knew. She knew. Everyone there knew.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt more shame. I bent my head. My nose kept sniffing, and my eyes were full of tears.
I stood there for several minutes.
I wonder now how that was for the others, and for Miss. Dolan. Eventually a girl called Martha Coogan who I barely knew spoke up.
She said, “We’re all friends with Sinead.”
At this Miss Dolan said I could sit down. Perhaps Martha jolted her into some kind of sense.
There is something of a happy ending to this. I won some competitions and did a good Junior Cert. In the small way of these things my honor was restored and girls wanted to be my friend again. Obviously it wasn’t the same for a long time. These days I’m probably back to my primary school self; I’ve lots of friends. I seek out time on my own. My 14 year-old self could never have anticipated this.
I don’t know what happened to Eileen Dolan Cunningham.
I began this by asserting my natural affiliation to authority. It’s true, but there are actually so many events in my life which suggest otherwise, and a lot of my career as a journalist and filmmaker has been entirely taken up with the questioning of authority.
So I think it’s probably more accurate to say I have a natural respect for authority, but I’m very aware of how it can be misused.
I’ve far less patience with institutions. At best there’s something silly about their pomposity. More seriously, they can really damage individuals. I loathe how people pander to them. I’m nauseated by parental ambition, mostly.
I now have a five year-old daughter, and recently attended her first parent-teacher meeting which was funny - there’s just not much to say. Only one comment resonated. She’s great, her teacher said, except when she disagrees with what the group is doing. Then she does her own thing.
I couldn’t but interpret this as a positive.