A few years ago my then-nine year old son Declan came home from school excitedly waving a notice. “Mum!” he exclaimed, thrusting it under my nose, “There’s try-outs for the swimming team next Monday, and I want to go in them!” Dec has never been a particularly sporty child, so I was astonished at his enthusiasm, and secretly rather delighted, having been a swimmer myself back in the early 1900’s. I was even more astonished/delighted when he won two heats at his trials and made the team.
But I need to qualify his qualification. Dec and his sister attend a small school. Actually, it’s more like a village school, with just under 150 students and only six classes. There are other much bigger and better-resourced schools in our area, but we chose this one because it’s around the corner from our home and the temptation of never having to compete in the twice-daily parking derby was too much to resist. We were also both very much attracted to the friendly and caring atmosphere of the school. It’s catholic; we’re not… but as my husband likes to say, we’re practising opportunists, and Mary Immaculate Primary was too good an opportunity to pass up.
There are advantages and disadvantages of small schools, but one thing in their favour is that your kids get a place in the sports teams. And the school production, and the choir and the Maths Olympiad if it comes to that, simply because they need every warm body they can get to fill the spots. A neighbour with children at the local state school told me that her grade-four daughter had been devastated when she turned up to try out for her school swimming team, and so had forty others. She never had a chance.
The disadvantage of a small school, though, is that when it comes to competing against those others with populations six or seven times greater than your own you’re bound to be outclassed. This was brought home rather forcibly to myself and the mothers of two of Declan’s mates who had also made the team when we attended our first training session at the local pool. There, in the lanes adjacent to ours, was a school team that would soon be competing against Mary Immaculate at the upcoming Interschool Swimming Carnival. We watched in awe as they donned matching blue caps, stroked neatly through their laps in perfect formation, then practised their relay changeovers with a precision that would impress East Germans. Our kids, in contrast, had never swum competitively. Heck, Declan had never swum a lap of a fifty-metre pool until the trials. Every time one of our under-ten boys dived in we were just happy if they surfaced. Making it all the way down the other end was a complete bonus.
The big day arrived, and our tiny squad was alert but not alarmed… at least, that is, until we actually got to the pool and saw what we’d be competing against. Six other schools were already there, every one at least double our size. Rather unnervingly, the team we were seated next to were warming up, but their voices rather than their legs, chanting the name of their school over and over with increasing fervour and volume. One of the other mums turned to me and whispered “Wow- what do we shout? Go the Immaculates? Come on you Marys?”