As a kid, I worried about Santa Claus’s feelings. For weeks–months–he was all we thought about and talked about. We laboured over letters with our tongues stuck out, explaining that we would please like a Ballerina Sindy Clear Casters a selection box and a surprise please. We listened to the radio on Christmas Eve, dying to hear Santy read our names. That night, excitement edged towards panic as the hours refused to get out of the way. Then–sandy-eyed after bad sleep–the breathless unwrapping. What is it? What is it? Strap-on rollerskates. Here’s the Sindy. A Timex watch! And Clear Casters? No, the selection box. (Disappointment.)
And as the wrapping paper piled up, Santy disappeared from our consciousness, like a porn star after the money shot. We stood ready to catalogue our swag: “Was Santy good to you?” the aunties would ask. “What d’ya get?” said the other kids, jostling to compare. But beyond that, we didn’t give him a thought. No reports, no thank yous. No more being-good-for-Santy. Stupid old stupidhead forgot the batteries again, anyway.
On Christmas afternoon I’d sprawl on the couch, drowsy from the heat of the fire and the three or four bars I’d eaten from my selection box, not wanting _Willy Wonka_ to end. Every year I imagined that Christmas Day would feel so different, so special, but when it came around the day was soggy, not crisp and bright and even. There was no transubstantiation, the games weren’t quite like the ads, and I felt the melancholy of seven. At those times I wondered what Santy was doing now, after that dash and all those chimneys. Was he wondering if we liked our presents? Was he sad that we didn’t say?
When I had finished the Leaving, my dad made me write thank you notes to my teachers. I considered testing my adulthood by telling him, maturely, to fuck off–I was eighteen now, spending the summer in London, and, well, whatever the 1990 equivalent of what-ev-er was. But I did it. I wrote six or seven neat postcards thanking them for teaching me. Later, after my college finals, I did the same thing.
I’d grown up around teachers. My generation were lucky students–we got the first crop of teachers who had benefitted from the introduction of free secondary school education in the sixties. They were often the first in their families to go to college, and they were grateful, bright, and committed. My dad was one of them, and still is, though he’s looking forward to retirement now. I remember the corrections and class preparations he did–teetering stacks of green and white copybooks; the velvety purple carbon paper he typed on. History and English were a slog to teach–thirty essays a class, several times a week. Dad envied his maths teacher colleagues, who could get the kids to swap copies and correct their own homework. He rarely did fewer than four or five hours of preparation at night. (To his disgust, pages and pages of his pirated class materials used to filter back from the Leaving Cert “tutorial centres” that the middle-class parents began to pay for, as sort of academic Fat Camps. “They bring this stuff in to share with the class because it’s so much better than the notes they get for free. And I pull out the originals from fifteen years ago and tell them I stopped handing it out because it’s out of date.”)
My friend Seán had it worse. He taught us Irish–endless irregular verbs, _modh coinníollach, tuiseal guineadach._ In Irish, the nouns have cases, for god’s sake. We hated every minute of it, from the whining-peasant memoirs we had to read to the tortured pidgin accounts on our summer holidays. _”Timpiste a thárla!”_ At least the English teachers have a few kids in every class who love it,” he said to me last year. “I had to carry every one of them.”
Tonight I got a letter from a schoolmate who had found this site and was pushed to write by memories of the Leaving Cert. I haven’t seen him since we were seventeen, but I remembered him immediately: freckled, chaotic, and always cheerful. “PS,” he wrote, “Your father terrified me. Funny, I know.”
Dad worked his students hard, tolerated no messing, as he’d say. They had no idea how much he noticed, or how much he laughed at their love lives back in the staff room. When we walk around town now, people greet him on every corner. “Howrya, sorr,” they say, even the forty-year olds. They always expect him to recognize them and remember their outrageous antics, not calculating how many thousand kids he’s taught in thirty-five years. But I’m always surprised at how many he does recognize. Sometimes, in pubs, I meet people who had once been in his class.
“He got me through the Leaving,” they often tell me, these near-strangers who recognize my face from his. “I’d never have got the honour otherwise. Great teacher.”
Thinking back on it, I can’t remember that Dad ever got a note from a student that said as much; that recognized how much time and care he’d put into their inky copy books over the years; that said that B in English helped them fulfill their dreams of becoming a dentist or a poet. He must have got some, surely? But maybe not. I didn’t write to Santy about the rollerskates, either–at least not until the following year, when I wanted something again.
But it’s never too late for gratitude recollected in tranquility. Maybe I will write to Santy now.