A STUDY by researchers at Mary Immaculate College revealed last week that Irish children are losing their freedom of mobility, mainly, it seems, because they don’t get to walk or cycle to school independently. The nation shrugged its shoulders and more or less decided that there isn’t much that can be done about that, seeing that nearly everyone has a car now, and the school run has become a parental rite of passage.
Also there is the new phenomenon of many second level pupils getting their own cars and driving to school unaccompanied as soon as they’re old enough to acquire a driving licence. So what’s the problem then?
The thing is, however, kids can’t have it both ways. Most of their grandparents are still traumatised 50 or 60 years after walking three miles to and fro in bare feet - sometimes through the fields eating raw turnips on the way - just to get a whiff of an education and a taste of the most vicious corporal punishment.
When I first read about the report I thought it was the independence of Irish schoolchildren that was under threat. Hell, if they get any more independence, I thought, the Beatles generation may as well hang up its boots. We didn’t have many rights, but children have their own parliament now and their own ombudsman and soon they’ll be able to vote for President and even stand for the office themselves before they have even grown their wisdom teeth. They can now decide how they learn and the teacher is becoming just a facilitator. Smacking is about to be outlawed too, and before we know it they’ll be demanding a minimum rate of pocket money. Now, on top of all that they want the freedom to walk to school.
Children told the researchers that the greatest fear they have about walking to school is the fear of dogs. Most girls said that they were afraid of being kidnapped. Both are very legitimate reasons for choosing to be dropped off at the school gate by their parents, but the question is, do they really get a choice? Maybe it’s the parents who should have been surveyed and asked why they have decided that it is preferable to drive their children to school rather that let them walk or cycle even a quarter of a mile through what they obviously perceive as a more hostile environment than the one in which they themselves grew up. What are the parents’ greatest fears?
I can certainly empathise with the fear of dogs. There are roads I won’t walk because of certain dogs that raise Cain every time I pass the gate but according to their owners they’re incredibly friendly. But we had worse than dogs to contend with in my time. My brother attended a primary school about a mile from the house we moved to in the 1960’s. It was a one- teacher school with only 12 pupils and how they all survived the sanitary facilities without contracting typhoid is a mystery. Naturally they all walked to school unaccompanied, despite the fact that there was a bellowing bull loose on the road most mornings, lumbering awkwardly but possessively beside a herd of cows being brought in for milking by a local farmer. In winter time, the pupils were confronted by a herd of wild goats down from the Silvermines Mountains, some with horns that would put King Puck to shame, all huddled around the school door. The kids took it all in their stride.
There are, of course, some more daunting challenges facing today’s pupils. I don’t know, for instance, if any of the children surveyed said that their schoolbags were too heavy to lug any farther than the garage door, or if the prospect of having to get out of bed half an hour earlier to walk or cycle to school was too big a sacrifice to have to make for the sake of independent mobility. But I suspect that both do play a part.
I don’t envy the pupils of today the luxury of being driven to and from school. I think though they should realise how privileged they are and how easy they have it. Walking to school was often quite a chore, particularly in bad weather. Yet I also know that the two miles of road we once walked home together every day from school along the Dolla road, dawdling and fighting, gathering bluebells in May under the chestnut trees at Kilboy and picking blackberries on the hedges in September, forged a companionship none of us would ever forget. I’d never have thought then that this particular stretch of road would one day become in my memory “not gravel to the traveller, but eternal lanes of joy . . .”