Between 1984 and 1991 I attended a small primary school on the edge of Ballymena. It was called Carniny, (the ‘n’s’ and ‘r’ rolled softly round the mouth like the tiny mountains they resembled. The ‘y’ pronounced like a homely ‘e’). It was one of the best things that ever happened to me though I probably didn’t realise this at the time.
From the outside my school didn’t seem particularly ostentatious. It was one of those squat, rectangular institutions popular in the 1970s which look like a series of over-sized matchboxes have been hastily tacked together. It featured a junior playground to the front, a senior playground to the rear and a playing field of ill-defined purpose which was unfortunately inclined so any team playing towards the staff car park almost always won. There was also a sandpit which passed for long jump pit, high jump pit, and burial plot for all our juvenile detritus, (matchbox cars, severed heads of Star Wars figurines, pennies and the half-chewed remains of bad packed lunch sandwiches). There were seven classrooms in total, an assembly hall which doubled up as cafeteria, concert hall and gymnasium and was more often than not covered with our poster paint and crepe paper masterpieces, (daffodils at Easter, cottonwool-bearded Santas for Christmas and, in the Autumn, various arrangements of leaves). I also recall the medical room where, once a year, we lined up in our vests to have our spines examined and squint past a wooden spoon at the alphabet receding on the opposite wall. I’m sure there was a staff room somewhere and a secretary’s office. I think the secretary was still using a typewriter back then. I think I remember the clicketty clack of it tip toeing down the corridors.
However, the best and holiest room in the school was reserved for music. It sat at the back of the school between the Primary six and seven classrooms. It contained ordinary chairs, little desks, music stands for our lessons and various percussion instruments for ticking, clicking and shaking along with the BBC music programme which we all tuned into once a week on the big wooden wireless. It was full of Dr. Simpson. Dr. Simpson was our headmaster. Which is to say Dr. Simpson was the king of Carniny Primary School. He was an exceptionally tall man, with shiny hair and the kind of face which is always just about to break into a deep, belly laugh. Dr. Simpson would not have been amiss in a Roald Dahl book for there was something of the BFG about him and he had that tweedy blazer, pipe-smoking look which sits so well with wise and kind men of a certain age. He smelled a little of pipe smoke but this was not an unpleasant smell. I still have a fondness for it and it is only now, some thirty two years later, that I am beginning to wonder whether every other four year old stored their reading words in an empty tobacco tin, or if this was something peculiar to Dr. Simpson’s kids.
Dr. Simpson was rarely in his office. Preferring, as all good kings do, the company of his subjects he would often walk up and down the corridors of his school, talking to his children, asking about our small sporting victories and little bits of news from home, knowing every single one of our hundred or so names, (even the special added on bits which distinguished each of the five Emma’s in my class from the other four: Emma Lee, Emma Dalton, Emma Shields, Emma White, Emma Lynn). On Friday afternoons his face would often appear at the door of a senior school classroom interrupting a serious maths lesson or the meticulous separating of verbs and adverbs with a smile and a very decent proposal, “would anyone in this class like to sing instead of doing maths?” Down would go our pencils, our set squares and rulers and we’d spend the rest of the afternoon in the music room, sitting on the desks -for wasn’t that ten times more fun than sitting on a regular chair?- while Dr. Simpson battered an old acoustic guitar and we sang endless rounds of ‘She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain,” and “On Top Of Spaghetti All Covered In Cheese” and the rude version of “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean” with its smelly feet verse, which is just as hilarious now as it was in 1989. It didn’t matter if you could sing like an angel or, like me, you were relegated to playing the coconuts for “Little Donkey” in the Christmas concert, everyone loved singing with Dr. Simpson because we could see how important, how absolutely vital music was to him.
Dr. Simpson was evangelistic about music. Once a week he brought his record player into assembly and all of us, even the littlest four year olds, sat rapt and cross legged on the dusty, wooden floor while he told us the story behind Vivaldi’s Four Season’s and all about Beethoven making beautiful melodies despite his broken ears, and played Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” which was suddenly so much more than dancing spoons in a yogurt ad. We were transported. We had an orchestra with proper bow ties and black and white fancy outfits. We had choirs, recorder ensembles, guitar club and so many entries in the Ballymena Feis the school practically decamped to the Town Hall for the week. We loved it. I especially loved it. Dr. Simpson was one of the first people to introduce me to music and art and things which were not just useful but also beautiful and provocative and kind of terrifying. I am so very fortunate to have landed at Carniny during his reign. Naively I assumed that everyone did school like this, that learning was something everyone looked forward to in the morning, that all Primary schools had orchestras.
And this is not to say it was only the art which made Dr. Simpson a very special man. There was so much more to him than music and words. All Carniny kids will remember his impromptu nature walks, up through the fields around the school, once into the back garden of a school friend; all twenty of us filing past his mum at the kitchen window as we came to pay our respects to his new baby rabbits. All Carniny kids of this era know to keep their hands well clear of holes in trees and woodland areas for fear of encountering the blood-thirsty badger Dr. Simpson told us had once bitten right through a man’s arm. “Snap,” he’d said, “like a broom shaft breaking in two,” and I can still see him standing on the hill, part leaning on his walking stick. This, it should be noted, was in the era before health and safety, when only actual out-of-town trips to the Zoo or the Ulster Museum required parental consent. We followed Dr. Simpson through the fields of Ballymena and many years later we still remembered things he’d taught us about the trees and the birds and the seasons: the delicate balance of every leaning part of our small world. We probably didn’t even stop to say thank you.
I’d like to say thank you now, but it’s too late. Dr. Simpson passed away at the end of last week. Every Ballymena person I’ve talked to since has smiled a little when they mentioned his passing, smiled like they are remembering a particularly good holiday or a piece of their favourite music. They have, without exception, used words like special, gentle, gracious and wise. I’ve been thinking a lot about Dr. Simpson this weekend and while it’s been years, decades even, since I last spoke with him, he is an easy man to remember, the sort of man who leaves the best kind of marks.
I’d like to think Dr. Simpson remembered me; (all us Carniny kids probably feel the same way; we’d like, most of all, to believe that he was proud of us). I’d like to think he somehow knew that it’s partly his fault that I write and I eat books for breakfast and I sometimes feel like I can climb inside a Bob Dylan song and I have this insatiable urge to make sure other people have art and music, words and wonder too. I’d like to say thank you for all the little seeds of worth he planted in me, for the way he knew that a child complimented and encouraged is a child who will flourish without harsh discipline. I’d like to say thank you for showing me how to teach others with kindness, with joy and with the humility to never give up on my own learning. I’d like to apologise for giving up on my cello lessons. I’d like to tell him we sang ‘She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain” with our Singing for the Brain group this morning, forty people with Dementia and their carers raising their voices to sing “aye, aye, yippy, hippy, yaye,” and laughing at their own silliness. I’d like to say this was especially for him. I think he’d like that. I think he’d be proud.