Hitting the Ceiling Light ( Day 6 )

Chalk on wood, illustration for " Hitting the Ceiling Light", a short story about Irish Classrooms in the past.
Hitting the Ceiling Light

The Challenge for Day 6

” Tell Another Person’s Story”

The challenge from Jeff Goins today is to tell a story from someone else’s point of view, perhaps even a friend.  I reached back into my past and this is what I came up with. Part fiction, part memoir, but told from a friend’s point of view. Hitting the Ceiling Light…

Hitting the Ceiling Light

“Look at the pair of ye.”

Miss Hennessey has me and Annie Smith standing out in front of the class.  Rows of wooden desks in front of us and her sitting behind us. I can’t even see her face, but her voice makes me jump.

“You, Mary Cosby, one thing’s for sure, you’ll never go into a room without darkening it. Hitting the ceiling light you’ll be, or maybe even cracking the roof if you can’t stop growing like that.”

I lower my shoulders, trying to look a bit smaller. But I still feel like a giant beside Annie Smith. Sometimes I wish I was her, even if she is small. Anything is better than being a long streak of misery, like me. And she’s lucky because her Daddy complains if Miss Hennessey hits her. The last time he stopped Miss at the gate, and she came in shaking afterwards.  Didn’t even ask us our tables that morning. Then she went home early and we had to keep the classroom door open so Sir could hear us. That was grand because he doesn’t care what we do really. Just as long as there’s no fighting over lunches. Nobody ever wants a bite of mine, anyway. Sure, what’s exciting about jam sandwiches?

“And you, Annie Smith, you’ll never see over the counter of Casey’s shop, not with those stumps for legs. Maybe they could put you on show, people pay good money to stare at dwarves. And giants too.”

The sound of a chair squeaking along the wooden floor. Her footsteps, loud and sharp like a knock on a door. And there she is, straight in front of us.  Her big woolly cardigan has a matching blue belt and she’s tightening it around her waist. Her tummy still sticks out a bit. She takes off her glasses and puts them on the table beside her black leather bag. I can see straight into her eyes now and the insides look like pins.

“Well, I think we need to check to see how much ye’re growing or shrinking. William, the chalk.”

William gets a piece of white chalk from the battered cardboard box on the shelf under the blackboard.I’m glad I don’t have his job. He has to mind the chalk and make sure important things don’t get rubbed off by mistake, even by Sir. William reaches down to mark Annie’s height on the blackboard. He presses hard and bits of chalk scatter over her hair, even down to her plaits. The mark falls on the same place as last month.   He drags over Old Man Raffety’s milking stool, the one Sir loaned us,  and climbs up on it.  He leans over me and makes a mark about an inch higher than last month. I know he’s cheating because I don’t feel the chalk stick.

” Well, done, William. You’ll surely make a fine priest one day. ”

” Thank you, Miss.” William drops the chalk back in the box and struts back to his desk. He slides in beside Pat Raftery, smiling.

Miss is always saying nice things about William. I think it’s because Fr. McManus is his uncle and he’s going to do the wedding for her. We’re not supposed to know about that, but I heard Mammy whispering about it with Bridie Carroll the last day she was collecting eggs. It was so funny when the eggs fell on the lino and Mammy had to gather more from the henhouse. But Bridie didn’t seem to mind, she just kept shaking her head and laughing. She even helped Mammy wipe off the sticky feathers and told her it was no bother at all, sure it was worth it for the laugh.

Miss looks slowly around the room., twisting the big ring on her finger.

” Liam Smith, yes, I think we’ll get you to do the writing today.”

Why isn’t she asking Margaret Fahey, like she usually does? It’s Margaret’s job. And anyway, Liam Smith is a useless speller, sure everyone knows that.

Liam walks slowly up to the blackboard. He picks up a stubby piece of chalk and starts rubbing it between his fingers. I hope it doesn’t break.

“Liam Smith. Why aren’t you writing?”

She stretches her neck out like a turkey and bends her body over him.

“Start with today’s date, how thick are you? Haven’t we been doing this all year.?”

Liam starts writing and the chalk makes a squeaking sound every time it hits the board. It takes him ages, but he gets it right. Miss Hennessey starts rubbing her chin.

“Now write the title,  Question Time.”

Title? What’s that about? We never do titles at morning news.

Mrs. Hennessey moves her hands to her hips. The belt is getting loose again, but she doesn’t seem to notice.

Kweston tiem

The chalk ricochets off his ear and smacks onto the ground, speckling the floor like bird poo. Some even lands on Miss Hennessy’s black, spindly shoes.

” Get back to your place, you’re a disgrace to your family. Won’t even be able to sign your name on a  deal at the mart. Sure, they’ll all ride rings around you.”

She calls up Margaret Fahey and shoves a new piece of chalk into her hand. Margaret looks from the board to the chalk to the duster.

” What are you waiting for? Rub out that  scrawl first and then write it down properly again.”

Margaret is quicker than Liam and really neat. I think she must practice at home to get that good.

 Monday, March 23rd, 1968

Question Time

Miss Hennessey calls out the question and Margaret writes it down carefully.

Which is worse, a giant or a dwarf?

Miss has that scary smile again, the one where her top teeth bite down on her lip. Her nose twitches and she stares at me.

“So, Mary Cosby, what do you think? Which is worse. A girl that’s too tall or one that’s too small?”

There’s no right answer here, that much I know. One time I guessed tall, the next time I said small. But I still got the six slaps. It was only the ruler, but it still stung like mad. And I tried to hide the red marks when I got home. Bad enough being in trouble at school.

“I don’t know, Miss.”

“Don’t know? Typical. All the brains are in your legs. But what good are they there? You might as well be a ladder.”

She turns her witchy face to Annie.

“So, Annie Smith, what do you think? You that has brains to burn. Surely you have the right answer?”

Annie is shaking.

” It’s whatever you say, Miss.”

Miss Hennessy’s face goes bright red. I don’t think she likes that answer.

” Pardon?”

“I’m sorry, Miss. I was just-”

“Sorry? Sorry? Did I give you permission to speak? The cheek of you.”

She grabs Annie, shaking her so much her plaits start flying all over the place and a button pops off her little grey cardigan.  The cardigan falls away in Miss Hennessey’s hands and Annie slides to the floor. Miss Hennessey’s face is going white now and her eyes are opening wide, like the deer I saw up Rafferty’s field last week.

” Get up, girl” Miss says as she helps Annie to her feet and leads her back to her desk. It’s my desk too. I think she just sits us beside each other to make me look stupid. Annie has her head down on the desk and she’s crying into her plaits. Her arms look so skinny, she only has short sleeves on. She is starting to shiver and I hope Miss gives her back her cardigan.

Miss pushes her squirrely hair back into place, fixes her woolly cardigan and wipes her hands on her tweed skirt. She sits back at her desk and taps the table hard with the ruler.

“I wasn’t even asking her a question, was I, class? And she had the AUDACITY to be shouting rudely at me. Remember that, boys and girls. Remember that.”

Everyone nods, even Jimmy O’Carroll in the corner. He’s banished there because Miss says he smells bad. I don’t know what she’s on about. I walk to school with him every morning and he smells the same as the rest of us. Sometimes, she makes us sprinkle Dettol on him and I hate when that’s my job. He always looks like he’s crying when I do it. Or maybe the Dettol gets in his eyes, I’m not sure really.  Miss never gives Annie Smith that job.  She’s lucky. But I don’t wish I was her anymore, not right now anyway. She’s bound to get six with the branch before the day is out.

Sure enough, I get the call. Probably because I’m the only one still out of my place. Well, except for Margaret, but she doesn’t count because Sir is her Daddy.

“Mary Cosby, go get me a branch,  a top one, nice and strong. Make some use of your size.”

” Yes, Miss.”

I walk out quickly, pulling down my sleeves as far as they’ll go, but they keep rolling back to my elbows. The trees are just at the end of the playground, I don’t really like how they smell. It reminds me of the Dettol.  I stretch up to reach the tallest branches and snap one away, a piece of wood gets stuck in my skin and my hand starts bleeding.  The cold March wind is blowing my hair all over the place. It even lifts up the bottom of my knitted dress and I pull it down fast with my clean hand.

When I get back in the classroom, everyone is back in their places, even Margaret. Miss Hennessey gets up from her desk and hammers along the floor towards me. She opens her belt and lets it swing down by her sides.

“That branch is far too small. Useless clown, didn’t try hard enough. Six of the best for you, my girl.”

She takes off the cardigan and flings it against the desk. Bang goes the brooch. Then she rolls up her silky pink sleeves and lifts the spiky green branch high in the air.

I hold out the clean hand first.



Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash


Part of my 500 words a day challenge.

Another in the Ireland series, as a result of my Three Questions post.













  • JulesPaige

    I can remember when teachers had the right to offer up that type of punishment.
    Some of the Little House on the Prairie books I’ve just finished also had some awful teacher/student scenes.
    Personally I think any teacher that has to lead a class that way shouldn’t be allowed to teach at all.

    • admin

      That tale is related to an Ireland that is long gone, thankfully. Ironically, it was dreadful experiences like that which inspired me to be a teacher. Kind of like I wanted to right the wrongs I had lived through.

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