Most of us have come across them, often rather uninspiring people who confess as to how much they loved their secondary school years – their supportive teachers, the absorbing subjects, their wonderful friends etc. ad nauseam. Of course they probably never failed to present their completed homework, they were always in time for class, they never had to be reprimanded, they were perfect students. I suspect that their parents had a great part in supervising and aiding them in their homework. In my secondary school years, I was very far from being an exemplary student.
I had been quite happy and successful during my primary school days at Carnalridge. I had a caring and inspirational headmaster and teacher – James Bankhead. In those days – 1952-58, Carnalridge was a small country primary school, less that 100 m from my from door.
In my last year there, there were only four of us attempting the 11-plus exams – David Hunter, Michael Moore, Joan Gurney and me. The 11-plus examinations were a test of mathematics, English and IQ and they were held in Coleraine. Depending on the results, one went to a grammar, a technical or a secondary school. For most of us, the 11-plus result dictated our future careers.
Known locally as C.A.I. or The Inst, Coleraine Academical Institution was founded in 1860 and had a large boarding facility until 1999, with extensive playing fields. In 1958, it was to this institution, as a day pupil, that I was sentenced. As a result of my having attained a decent mark in the 11-plus examinations. I was allocated to the ‘A’ class. There were four classes – ‘A’ through ‘D’, each with 30 pupils.
But the move to C.A.I was rather a shock to my system. Firstly, there was my having to catch a bus to Coleraine – to miss it was to be late and subject to punishment. I was never late. Then there was what felt like a long walk in all weathers, from The Diamond in Coleraine, up the Castlerock Road to the school. In my first two years I attended the Model School, across the Castlerock Road from the main C.A.I. buildings. The Model School had been recently taken over by C.A.I. To me, the Model School seemed like an reluctant survivor from the very early days of Charles Dickens. It no longer exists, having been demolished and replaced by yet another housing estate.
I was in no way prepared for the curriculum. My poor parents had only very basic education to age 15 and subjects like Latin, French, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Mathematics etc. were foreign to them. I had no educated uncles or aunts to lean on and frankly, I struggled. Much of the subject matter made absolutely no sense to me.
And I did not respond well to the discipline that they tried to instill in us. Nothing will ever convince me that, having been detained after school for a minor misdemeanor and having to write 500 times, ‘I must not talk in class’ or ‘I must remember my school book’, has made me a better citizen. Nor has having been caned across the hand or the buttocks. There were several teachers that, were they to be alive today, I would happily punch. In those days, corporal punishment ruled.
As a day pupil, I was free to go home at the end of the day. It was not so for the young boarding school pupils. I never envied their lives, separated from their families for months on end. I feel certain that there was an element of bullying of the younger students by older pupils and prefects. If the various churches have had to face up to a multitude of scandals, I suspect that CAI has had some of its own ‘skeletons in the cupboard’.
But there was one really positive side to my secondary schooling – the sports; C.A.I. was a leading rugby school. I had never before seen rugby – we had no television in those days, but once I was involved, rugby very much appealed to me. Sports at C.A.I. were compulsory and only excused if subject to a doctor’s note. And in the summer months, there was cricket; in the morning break, lunch and after school, I could usually be found bowling in the cricket nets.
I will never forget my first exposure to rugby. It was in my first days at my new school and there was a schools cup match. We were excused classes to support our senior team and it was then that I first heard the school’s war cry:
HEE-YAH, HEE-YAH, HEE BILLYWANGA, HEE-YAH HEE-YAH HA
HUNKA, HUNKA, HUNK BILLYWANGA, KRA KRU KRA
RICK, RICK, RICKETY RICK
ISKY ISKY AYE
HEE BILLY WANGA, TING TONG TANGA
The war cry was written after some CAI boys watched the All Blacks perform their famous Haka, prior to playing Ulster in the winter of 1924-25. The CAI war cry was first heard in public on 17 March 1925, at Ravenhill, now the Kingspan Stadium, when CAI won the Schools Cup.
So, for my first three years at CAI, I struggled through the junior school, sometimes with ‘an excellent mark’ when I was interested in the subject, at other times ‘must try harder’ prevailed. At the same time, I was very much involved in the sports.
But I was definitely never an exemplary student.