The village skyline is soon to be changed forever when the wrecker’s ball demolishes our secondary school, making way for the impressive new building that stands patiently waiting behind it.

At the heart of our community for more than 50 years, generations of local families have passed through the school’s double glass doors not only for their education, but for concerts and fashion shows, coffee mornings and charity appeals, and even, on one very special morning, a reading from that wonderful poet, Brendan Kennelly.

But before it collapses into an untidy heap of debris and dreams, this time capsule of firsts - first love, first disco, possibly first sneaky cigarette behind the graffitied walls of the bike sheds - opened its doors one last time to its former students.

Threads of friendship

From my post behind the tea trolley, I watched the alumni file in from the paint lined playground like they had so many times before, thinking of what Nelson Mandela said about “returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered”, looking forward to picking up the threads of friendships that had darned so many of life’s patches.

The teachers, so big when you were small, shrunken now somehow, were greeted with broad smiles and hugs, all past detentions forgiven and forgotten with one firm handshake as the school hall echoed with cries of, “Oh, you haven’t changed a bit.”

Middle-aged women wrapped their arms around each other, like the teenagers they used to be, as men awkwardly patted each other on the back as they stood chatting, lamenting that their own children wouldn’t be educated in this building that they once couldn’t get out of fast enough and that they swore had ruined their lives.

Six sisters who, as teenagers had followed each other through the hallowed halls like steps and stairs, sat together reminiscing on grey plastic chairs, their adult frames spilling out over the edges of the seats that once had comfortably held them, as big burly men held laminated press clippings with curling edges reverently in their hands as they perched uncomfortably on the edge of initial-scarred wooden benches, their knees rubbing against the calcified chewing gum that was still clinging to the past on the underside of the desks. One couple arrived directly from the airport, flying home from the life they had made across the water, tightly clutching the hands of their two small children, excited to show them where Mammy and Daddy had met and where their family story had begun.

Different paths

The voices of the missing could be heard clearly too, the few who cruelly didn’t make it, their names engraved on polished, perpetual trophies displayed in locked cabinets, kept alive in the only way a school can, and living on through those who had sat alongside them, who now understood that for all our different paths, we had all taken a little bit of each other with us on our journey.

As the last few graduates tore themselves away with long backward glances and I packed away the remaining few custard creams, I went looking for photographs of my own daughter, too far away to attend, having flown away on the wings her teachers gave her when they told her she could be anything, go anywhere.

I found her little face in the gallery of first year students on the narrow corridor wall that she must have walked down hundreds, thousands, of times; wishing I had understood then how limited our time together was to be, wondering what I could have done differently.

And as I took out my phone to take her picture through the smeared glass, I guiltily wished I could have clipped those wings, just a little bit, so they could still have flown; but just not quite so far away.

More often heard on RTÉ Radio One “Getting A Word In Edgeways”, Kate is excited to be sharing her thoughts with readers of Irish Country Living. Editor of The Muskerry News and Kenmare News, Kate loves dogs, gardening and writing, in no particular order.