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Temps Perdu? – “St Michael’s made me feel special” by Fr Stephen Motroni

When I think back to my time at St Michael's (1969-74), most of my memories are very happy. At that time, there was still the 'qually' or qualifying exam. This sorted children into two groups; those destined for academic certificates were sent to senior second-ary schools like St Michael's, and those who hoped to get apprenticeships or professional training went to a junior secondary like St Peter's in Ardrossan.

When I found that I had passed, I was delighted, as I was never good at anything practical. Mr Leishman (woodwork and metalwork) soon made it clear he did not want me anywhere near a saw, a plane, or a mallet! I was no good at technical drawing either, so it was just as well that I enjoyed music; Mr McFarlane was always happy to let a small group of us use the middle music room. It was pretty much the same with art. Mr Campbell was very critical of my attempts at either representational or abstract art (in my case very much the same). Once, when he likened my study of an old man smoking a cigarette to a deflated football, I asked him if I really needed to continue. When he replied that I had no talent whatsoever, I took him at his word and never went back. He did try and find me a few times, but gave up after a while. I was happy being left to academic subjects and to music and loved getting involved with anything on the stage. I remember having fun with an early production of 'Oliver' and a play called 'The Truth will out'. Later on there was 'The Song of Simeon', where the four shepherds never quite got it together. We seemed at that time to have plays and concerts every term, but the highlights had to be the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. In 'HMS Pinafore' I loved every minute as the villain Dick Deadeye.

Even today, I think there is some fear involved in leaving behind a small primary school to make a bus journey to another town and the big school. I can still recall the fear and excitement which mingled in me as I started St Michael's. I had heard stories about very strict teachers and nuns and priests on the staff. But mostly I was afraid of the tales of bullying. First years, I was told, would be 'chucked down the banking' or have their heads forced down the 'lavvy pan'. I was lucky, it did not happen to me. I did however, like most boys, have my share of corporal punishment. In those days everyone expected the strap; we had it also at primary school, and we were used to it. Some teachers used it much more than others however, and some (who better not be named) had a fierce reputation. The worst form of corporal punishment for me however came in the form of PT. Here is a list of my horrors:
     Cross country in the winter cold and drizzle,
     Drill (ropes and wall bars in particular),
     Single sex 'country' and 'old time' dancing,
     Supervised showers.
I was almost as pathetic at PT as I was at woodwork, but I never managed to 'plunk it' successfully. I seem to remember (it is a bit of a blur) getting strapped every year at St Michael's for some failure in PT.

Some teachers have a life-long effect on a student's life. I shall never forget the impact of certain staff. Sister Pauline was kind to me. I once got into a fight about religion, and in a burst of anger, managed to break another boy's collar bone. When Sister Pauline heard why the fight had started, she smiled, and told me not to do it again. I had expected much worse. Miss Whiston, despite strapping the whole class once when no one would own up to making telephone noises, managed to get basic mathematical principles across so that they are still with me today.

The Catholic ethos of the school did not need a mission statement while I was there. All my friends went to mass every Sunday. The faith was ours and we were prepared to fight and die to defend it. There were a few atheists and more communists among the student body (and I suspect some of the staff) but most of the teachers were very clear about their commitment to the Catholic faith. The devotion that was shown by the likes of Miss Wade and Mr McCourt was very genuine. Simply by praying at the beginning of class and taking the faith seriously in all subjects, you were left in no doubt that this was a faith school. But that does not mean that we were always well behaved. I can recall teachers being locked into cupboards and whole classrooms being turned back to front. Small animals were routinely dissected, and explosions seemed to be a regular part of chemistry lessons. I doubt that there was ever a risk assessment carried out and fear seemed to be an accepted teaching method.

A smart student once placed a sign on the notice board which read 'Parvae Sagittae sumus'. It puzzled us, even if we knew that the words were 'Small Arrows We are' - it was only when we put this into Ayrshire Scots that we got 'Wee arra people'. St Michael's did manage to make me feel special. I treasure my time there.

Fr Stephen Motroni


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