Does anyone remember the Milk Essays? Or the Milk Short Story Competition, I can’t remember the exact term and I’m showing my age

The things I was good at and the things I was bad at were crystal clear by the time I was 12. In Mrs O’S’s class, you were lucky if you were good at Art or Maths. Outside of that she probably wouldn’t remember you. I was good at Art. I was chronic at Maths. It made me memorable in both cases. Every day she would give us a Maths problem to solve from her dreaded Big Blue Book. My God, I despised that book. I hated it like only a pubescent pre-teenage girl can hate. I hated the reverence with which Mrs O’S would take it down off the shelf and smile, while the sound of forty reactions bounced around the classroom. It was as if, every day, I was being handed a page of text, written in Cuneiform and expected to translate it into English. I knew it was an impossible task, a futile exercise that I would grapple with for the rest of the afternoon, while girl after girl finished her work and went up to get it corrected. If she got it right, she stood in the corner, a place of pride in our classroom, not shame. From this dominant position, she (it was always the same girl) stood, wallowing in pride – and why not? For the next hour at least, she’d have to stand there, doing feck all, while the rest of us painfully pulled ourselves through to a solution. May I just get out of the way right now, that I was always second last, the long line of triumphant girls snaking their way across the blackboard and beyond, watching me with varying degrees of pity. There was no one more surprised than me when I finally worked it out. I hated that exercise. I hated that we were put through that ordeal every day of sixth class. It didn’t help me to be better at Maths; it only highlighted for me on a daily basis, that thing I was woefully bad at. I felt judged and I felt stupid. I was a happy child and had plenty of friends, so it didn’t damage my social standing as far as I know, but it’s a mark I still feel, and very deeply.

I had missed a key year and a half of learning, when my family emigrated to Spain. It was unheard of at that time – Ireland of the 1970s, for such a thing. To the Spaniards, just crawling out from under the dictatorship of a recently deceased Franco, it was beyond exotic, and we were wildly popular when we attended school – which wasn’t very often, as we travelled around quite a bit with my father’s work. Most of the time I sat with my sisters at the dining room table of whatever house/villa/apartment/hotel we ended up in, going through our school books, which were posted over to us by our Irish school teachers. We self taught. I liked to fill in the workbooks with whatever nonsense came into my head; I doubt I even read the questions. It was a time for drawing, scribbling, bickering and whispering, while my mother made dinner in the kitchen. Maybe I missed out on my education, but between early 1976 and late 1977, I had the best childhood an Irish girl could ask for. I had a mindful moment one day, as I walked home across the strand with my sisters, having spent the day swimming and making sandcastles, wearing the sunflower beach dress my mother made for me, my bare feet delighting me as they made their way across the wet sand; everything about my life and my own self delighted me in fact, and I remember singing a little made up dreamy melody, the word ‘Sunshine’ the only lyric. I thought of my self as sunshine in that moment – my dress, my mood, my life. It was a very pure moment and I’m so happy my father captured it in a photo, or it would have flitted out of my head like so many other things.

A year after Spain, in Mrs O’S’s class, I won the Milk Essay. It was important to me to win it, although as far as everything else in my life went, I hadn’t a competitive bone in my body. My story of milk production in Ireland was told by Marigold the cow, who lived on Farmer McGillicuddy’s farm and marvelled that milk could float ‘past your eyes’. I won a camera for my trouble. I knew I deserved it. It took six years in a secondary school that was the round hole to my square peg and a line of teachers who missed my ability to finally assure me that I wasn’t really all that good; creative? Me? Deep down, sure – but not great; not something that would appeal to many. And so, let off the hook of academia and with nothing else to fill the gap, I began my collision course of wild weekends and late night boozing. I let myself get lost. I remember consciously doing it. I spiralled until one day I got pregnant and that put a stop to my gallop. My son was many things to me, including the catalyst that brought me back to myself. Immediately I began to write; to him, to my diary, to my future self. And I remembered Marigold the Cow, and my fiery painting of Napoleon that Mrs O’S hung in pride of place on our classroom wall. I remembered singing about sunshine and long dreamy days on the beach and away from school. For so long I wondered if my free-spirited childhood in Spain had hindered me. Finally, I came to understand that I was learning vital lessons from a Teacher who saw the sunshine in me.