SUMMER’S last breath brings a chill to the Tuesday morning air, while lines of immaculately-turned-out youngsters heading for their first day at the ‘big school’ add a wistful sense of optimism and hope to the season’s-end melancholy.
The boy Squinter made the same journey, of course, but there wasn’t much optimism or hope in the air as he set out on that first mile-and-a-half walk from Lenadoon to St Mary’s. Fear and loathing abounded, though, because two months earlier, he had sat in his P7 Blessed Oliver Plunkett class and listened with a rising sense of dread to fellow pupils outlining in grisly detail the fate that lay in store for first- years up that hill beside the Bass Ireland brewery.
As the final days of primary school slowly passed, Squinter learned that the first and most benign act of ‘initiation’ that first-years suffered at the hands of evil third-years was the ritual
debeggin’ – the removal of the new grey trousers. This, the class know-all earnestly reported, meant that first-years had to walk home in their monks. Squinter gulped, looked out the window through the plants in the yoghurt cartons and up at the Black Mountain, wondering if he could run away and live off the land.
Further up the scale of first-day humiliations came the axle grease treatment. Said industrial lubricant was vigorously massaged into the hair, and being impossible to remove by shampoo, necessitated a shaving of the head and eyebrows by the school nurse.
Finally, and most horribly, came the football post treatment. Four third-years would seize one first-year and, taking hold of a limb each, would ram his debegged nether regions into the wood. And as if the thought of such a Spanish Inquisition-style atrocity was not enough to water the eyes and draw forth a whimper, we were reminded that the goalposts at St Mary’s were not round, but square.
Squinter’s not going to lie – it was an uncomfortable summer. Games of rally-o and 20-a-side street football would drive away the fear for only so long, but eventually and inevitably that dread image would intrude: Squinter walking up the Glen Road at 3.30pm, utterly bald and half-naked, his ging-gangs the size of melons.
Happily, no such horrors were visited on the boy Squinter or any of his titchy Plunkett comrades. Four or five first-years were dragged into the bogs and a desultory attempt was made to flush the toilet on their heads, but they emerged with little more than a damp shirt collar. But then that year went down in St Mary’s history as The Year of the Noodie Picture.
For years the first-year biology book had been mysteriously missing its four middle pages, which were neatly and carefully removed from the staple by the Christian Brothers before distribution.
The year Squinter started, the middle pages were left in for the first time in an atypical burst of modernist zeal, causing an outbreak of hormonal hysteria that cast third-year thoughts of axle grease and goalposts to the autumn wind. For in the very middle pages was a photograph of a naked man and woman holding hands. In these days of explicit internet images, the picture wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, but back then they were enough to throw a school community into a state of roiling ferment.
No opposition was brooked – the biology books were taken from the first-years by the third-years and the middle pages removed. Later, dozens of discarded pages were found in the school grounds, the man suddenly alone, a ragged line where his voluptuous partner had been cruelly taken from him. The statistics suggest that around 10 per cent of the discarded pages would have had the man missing, but in the shocked inquiry that followed, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Brothers didn’t furnish us with the details.
During Squinter’s time at the school, the theft of the noodie picture effectively became the first-year initiation ceremony. A threat of violence was involved, of course, but otherwise the first-years were physically unharmed, which was progress of a sort, Squinter supposes. But were the debeggin’, the axle grease and the goalposts ever really part of the first-year experience, or were those Plunkett tales the classroom equivalent of Boy Scout horror stories round a campfire?
Who knows? Who cares? Those first-years making their way to the big school for the first time this week had smiles on their faces, whereas Squinter and his Plunkett pals must have looked like they were mounting a gallows. Which in a way, of course, they were.