My school was a breeding ground for excellent hockey players (including, in a very envy inducing way, my little cousin who went on to play for Munster and maybe even had an Irish trial, I can’t remember now) and the team always did well in the Munster schools’ tournament. Part of the reason for this was that all of the effort was focussed on the first team who were drawn from across the cohort of 500 girls. The school didn’t field a seconds team and those of us who didn’t make the first team hung around to provide training practice for the firsts. Not many did but, I suppose, those of us with a fondness for ritual humiliation stuck with it. It was particularly irritating to my mother as she and her fellow parents were paying – over many years – for the all-weather hockey pitch on which the ritual humiliation took place. We were trained by an elderly gentleman (I think that he must have been in his early 60s) who was adored by the firsts and whom I pretended to adore too, ever hopeful of making the first team. Let me remove the suspense now, I never did make the first team. Let me also remove some of the pathos, when I was in fifth year, someone’s mother, appalled by the way hockey was run in the school decided to start seconds and thirds teams and my last two years were spent happily travelling to matches in lower leagues (I was wing and the heart surgeon was inner – a lifetime’s friendship founded on her constant irritated observation that ‘grass is for cows’).
But let us go back to third year when I was still hanging around the fringes hoping against hope to make the first team. I went to every practice and I really had improved quite a bit. The gentleman trainer certainly knew my face, if not my name, and he had even, very occasionally, commented favourably on my play. At the end of the season, in April or May when, really, it was too hot to play hockey and we were all leaning exhausted, red and sweaty against the wall of the bicycle shed with jellied legs, our gentleman trainer announced that he was giving out prizes for achievements during the year. I didn’t have high hopes, clearly, and, indeed, the prizes went to the most likely candidates. The last prize, however, was for most improved player. I allowed myself to indulge in a moment of hope. It couldn’t possibly go to one of the first team becasuse they were all really, really good already. But it did, of course it did. Not one prize went to anyone who wasn’t on the first team. The unfairness of it stung me at the time but it had its own logic. Excellence was rewarded; anything else, however deserving, was not. It was that kind of school.
I’m still bitter. I could tell you what brought that little vignette to mind, but then I’d have to kill you.