Damien McKeating - Winner

Competition: Back to School Competition

Damien McKeating was born and a short time after that he developed a love of fantasy and the supernatural. His published short stories range from modern takes on Irish mythology to SF adventures for young readers. At times he has been known to masquerade as a musician and create peculiar folk songs. He writes daily and is currently the oldest he has ever been.

Damien McKeating

First Days

I do not want to go back to school.
My first day was confusing. I did not know what anyone was talking about. When I hung my coat on my peg (it had a picture of me on it) a boy called Neil said ‘Nice coat,’ and everyone laughed. I didn’t understand but I laughed as well because everyone was. Then someone pushed me. I didn’t see who it was and when I turned around everyone was going to find their seats.
There were lots of things in the room. There was a board with all of the letters on, another board with numbers on, one with the date and the weather, another with adjectives, another with punctuation and some more with pictures of the class and a feelings chart and cursive writing. I liked looking at the alphabet board. I looked at the letters and said each one as I read them.
My teacher was Mrs Finch. A finch is a kind of bird but it is also her name. As I was reading the board she was talking and she started to get louder and louder. I realised she was shouting my name and looking at me. Her face was red and her eyebrows were scrunched together.
‘When I am talking,’ she said, ‘you should be listening.’
I didn’t know what to say so I didn’t say anything. Mrs Finch said a lot of things and when I thought I knew what she was saying she was already saying something else. When she gave us some paper, I saw everyone drawing pictures but I didn’t know what to draw so I copied what the girl next to me did.
‘Why have you copied Jessica?’ Mrs Finch asked.
I didn’t know so I didn’t say anything.
‘This is supposed to be your work,’ she said.
‘I drew it,’ I told her.
Everyone laughed, even though I wasn’t lying. Mrs Finch made a face where her lips and eyes became very thin.
Lots of things kept happening. When we went outside to play, I watched the other children running around. They were hitting each other and shouting ‘Tig,’ and it looked like fun. I ran with them and hit one of the children. He started to cry and the other children shouted for the teacher.
‘Play nicely,’ she said.
Everyone ran away. They were laughing. I followed them and laughed too. I tried to hit another child but they shouted at me. ‘You’re not it!’
When we went back to the classroom Mrs Finch said lots of things again. I looked at the alphabet board. I know all of my letters and can write my name. I liked the pictures on the board. There was a picture for every letter. An apple for A, and a ball for B. My favourite was the whale for W.
I realised Mrs Finch was saying my name again.
‘Am I interrupting you?’ she said.
‘No,’ I replied. She wasn’t.
She made that thin face again. ‘Maybe you would like to come and teach the class.’ She held out her arm, gesturing at the space in front of the white board.
I stood up. Everyone laughed.
‘Sit down,’ Mrs Finch said, her face very red.
I sat down. My mum had said I had to come to school to learn things but I didn’t know what I was supposed to learn.
In the afternoon I needed to go to the toilet. I put my hand up but Mrs Finch was talking and she only said, ‘You’ll have to wait, put your hand down.’
I waited.
I didn’t want to put my hand up again. I didn’t want Mrs Finch to get her red face. I didn’t want the other children to laugh again. I knew they were laughing at me but I didn’t understand what was funny. It made my insides twist.
Eventually I needed the toilet so much that it started to hurt and I had an accident in my chair. I didn’t want to tell Mrs Finch. I didn’t want anyone to see. The girl sitting next to me pointed and began to shout. Everyone stood up to look. They started to laugh.
Mrs Finch made a face I didn’t understand.
She took me to the toilets and sent someone else to look after the class. She helped to find me some spare clothes.
‘I don’t know why you didn’t say something,’ she said. ‘You should have said something. This is not good enough.’
Her voice sounded funny in the toilets. She wasn’t shouting but it still sounded too loud. I looked down at the floor and tried not to cry. I was afraid that if I cried she would get her red face and get loud.
‘What are we going to do with you?’ she said.
My mum said that to me once when I got chocolate pudding over my clothes. I remember that when my mum said it, she was smiling and she tickled me when she wiped my face. Mrs Finch was not smiling. Mrs Finch did not look like she would tickle me.
When it was time to go home my mum had a long talk with Mrs Finch. I waited with them. I watched the other children leave and saw some of them point and laugh at me. I started to cry then. My mum saw me crying and started to get angry. She shouted at Mrs Finch, took hold of my hand, and walked me very quickly towards the car. It was hard to keep up and I kept tripping over my feet.
At the car my mum hugged me.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘It’s not you. It’s just… that woman!’
I held onto my mum. I could smell her clothes, which smell like our washing machine. I could see some hair on her coat. It was white hair, like our cat.
We went home.
I didn’t go back to school.
My mum spent a long time on the phone. She got angry with lots of people. She talked loudly. She sighed a lot.
‘I’ve been telling everyone but no one would listen,’ she said. She said that a lot, or words like that. She knew things that other people didn’t. I wondered if she’d learnt them in school.
I don’t want to go back to school.
It’s a new school, my mum says. It’s a different school. But I still don’t want to go. I just want to stay at home, but I heard someone say that you go to jail if you don’t go to school.
Mum drove me to the new school and I didn’t feel good. I didn’t know where we were going. We drove down roads I didn’t recognise.
‘It’s just a visit,’ Mum said. ‘To see how you get on, okay?’
My stomach wouldn’t stop moving. It was hard to talk and my voice felt stuck in my throat.
The school was small and big. It was just one building and the other school was lots of buildings, so it was small. But the one building was kind of big.
A teacher met me and my mum. He was called Mr Jones. He smiled a lot. He said hello to me and knelt down to talk to me. I said hello.
‘I hope you like our school,’ he said. ‘Would you like to meet Miss Cooper? She’s the teacher in Penguins’ class.’
I like penguins. I got lost on the way to the classroom. I didn’t know where we were but I followed mum and Mr Jones. There were lots of doors and we went by some stairs. Down a long corridor we came to another door with a picture of a Penguin on it.
‘Here we are,’ Mr Jones said and smiled again.
The classroom was small. There were eight children in there. There were three teachers.
‘Hello,’ a lady said. ‘I’m Miss Cooper.’
She told me who the other adults were, and the children, and showed me where I could sit.
My mum went to talk to Mr Jones and I stayed with the Penguins. Miss Cooper told me what we were doing now and what was going to happen to next. She pointed to a board that had pictures on to remind me.
I looked around the classroom. There were pictures on the cupboards and the drawers, so I knew what was in all of them. There were no pictures on the walls and they were painted an eggshell blue, which I remembered off a card we saw when buying paint for our living room.
Without the walls making noise it was easy to listen to Miss Cooper. She didn’t talk much. She did show us lots of things and I got to play with dough and squish it into different shapes. Miss Cooper asked me what the shapes were and I told her.
When mum came back to get me, I realised my stomach had stopped moving.
‘Can I come back again?’ I asked.
Mr Jones and my mum laughed and I didn’t know why.
‘Yes,’ mum said.
I’m looking forward to going back to school.  

Judges Comments

The attention to detail in Damien McKeating's First Days makes his first-person narrative of two very different 'first days' at school an insightful and illuminating look at different educational needs and how they can be perceived.

Damient's narrator is a child on the autism spectrum and their observations of the first 'first day' are an accumulation of painful, acutely-drawn incidents where the narrator is expected to fit in with a certain way of doing things that is never explained to them. The teacher, Miss Finch, is impervious to the poor narrator's confusion and discomfort, and although it is never explained to the narrator what is going on, Damien insightfully renders their situation and reactions, conveying the accumulation of ways in which they are made to feel at odds with their classroom environment. Damien uses a plain, unadorned narrative voice that recounts each incident, and the narrator's response, as simple facts; this raw, candid style accentuates the sense of the narrator's personality and their distress. It's painful to read because Damien makes it impossible not to imagine the narrator's experience.

The second 'first day', by way of contrast, takes place at a special school where the narrator is gradually shown to be understoood and accepted, which counts as a hoped-for 'happy ending' in the context of a narrative about the damage that can be caused to children when their educational needs are overlooked or not accommodated.

The detail Damien provides about the way his narrator experiences the world, and the ways in which their needs are met and not met, are acutely observed. This a story that enlarges the reader's experience, allowing them to perceive a fragment of life from the perspective of a child whose different needs place them in the position of suffering when these needs are not met or understood. Damien has filtered an angry perspective through a compassion lens, creating a powerful issue-based story that foregrounds one individual and their unique experience.


Runner-up in the School Competition was Barbara Young, Otterburn, Northumberland, whose story is published on www.writers-online.co.uk. Also shortlisted were: Dominic Bell, Hull; Sam Burt, London E7; Jodie Rose Carpenter, Birmingham; Pauline Dewberry, Erith, Kent; Andrew French, Redcar, Teesside; Lesley Middleton, Retford, Nottinghamshire; Karen Rodgers, Chard, Somerset; Kathy Schilbach, Lancing, West Sussex; Jessica Woodward, Oxford

Back to Showcase