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Holding on

What do you reply when a child says, 'Bad men are going to shoot my mummy in the head'? Wendy Wallace hears how the staff, pupils and parents of Holy Cross primary in Belfast are dealing with the aftermathof last year's attacks on their school.

The streets of north Belfast - Shankill Road, Crumlin Road, the Ardoyne - occupy less space in real life than in the imagination. Grey and rain-lashed, poor, shuttered, peopled by old women in headscarves and men exiting from betting shops, they look almost miniature. Headteacher Anne Tanney is smaller, too, than she seemed when she appeared on the front page of The TES (January 18), softly spoken with a straight, blue-eyed gaze and a habit of crouching down every few minutes to get to the level of small children.

She's down there now, in the playgroup of Holy Cross primary school for girls, talking to a child holding a toy nebuliser over the face of her doll. "Your nanny has one of those, does she?" She stands up when she has to though, as she did earlier this year, facing down the loyalist mob that breached the school grounds, talking to them in her calm, measured way while teachers escaped across the fields at the back with their children.

Several weeks have passed since the loyalist "protests" outside Holy Cross were suspended. In the words of the school's chair of governors, Father Aidan Troy, "an uneasy and fragile peace" prevails. The grey armoured vehicles and tattered unionist flags remain on the contested strip of road outside, but inside, Holy Cross once again feels like a well-ordered, intimate school. The girls, in their red uniforms, sit clutching exercise books marked with "very good" and "excellent" in red pen, or sing hymns round the piano in preparation for confirmation.

The corridors are decorated with plaster statues of the Virgin Mary and trailing tradescantia plants, a pair of tiny grey trousers dries on the radiator, girls break spontaneously into the steps of the Irish dances they learn in and out of school. Mothers now dare to go home once their children are in their classrooms, rather than huddling all day in the parents' room as they did at the height of the violence. But life for this school community has changed forever. "The sad thing is," says the head, "that the people who are the most liberal are the most hurt."

The school has changed physically. All the classrooms now have roll-down steel shutters at the windows - at night it's a steel box, say the teachers - and what used to be a playing area in front of the school has been marked out as a car park and turning circle for parents. one of the concessions demanded by protesters was that parents' cars should not be left on the road outside the school.

A "camogie" (Irish hockey) pitch for the boys' secondary school that abuts Holy Cross has been turned into another car park, and a road hastily built across the boys' playing fields, so that Holy Cross staff have a back entrance to the school and can be in their classrooms with smiles on their faces each morning, no matter what's happened on the Ardoyne Road. Most pupils now arrive by bus, which brings them the few hundred yards up the road from the nationalist area.

Holy Cross has become a place of pilgrimage for Irish-American tourists. The day before the TES visit, 25 arrived unannounced, handing out money, some collecting soil from the site. News coverage of the crisis elicited an international outpouring of sympathy and solidarity. the school has received 20,000 cards and letters (including one from Hillary Clinton), big financial donations and boxes of toys.

The circling goldfish in the tank in reception have seen Archbishop Desmond Tutu walk through the doors - the head gave him a soft toy - and at Christmas pupils had an audience with the president of Ireland, Mary McAleese. "Everyone was telling us they were praying for us," says Anne Tanney. "And we've had letters from both sides of the community here."

Staff and pupils at Holy Cross have lost their innocence. "As a Catholic teacher, you're very sheltered," says one teacher, aged 30. "You go to Catholic school, Catholic training college then teach in a Catholic school. You're secured from everything. You don't have to deal with issues in work. But these were our kids that were targeted and, my God, you feel strongly about that."

"The situation made me feel sick," says Anne Tanney, now in her 14th year as head. "Particularly as we'd worked so hard on cross-community contact. I could see people on both sides becoming more bitter."

The violence that erupted on June 19 last year - following an incident between the father of a Holy Cross pupil and three loyalist men putting up flags in the Ardoyne road - was not new. Holy Cross stands on the rise of a hill, at one end of Glenbryn, a small loyalist area in nationalist Ardoyne. It was built in 1969 on the site of a former Catholic seminary, and broken windows have been a regular weekend occurrence, as have arson attacks during the Orange marching season. Anne Tanney's archive includes a newspaper picture of herself standing in a burned-out classroom in July 1993, one of three major fires the school has suffered. "We have always had a small minority who aren't terribly pleased to have us here," she says. "We used to work very hard with community relations and try to extend the hand of friendship to our neighbours and show them there was nothing to fear."

But while past attacks were always directed at the fabric of the building, with staff able to protect children from knowledge of the broken windows and the summer fires, the targeting of children over recent months shocked the world. The sight of loyalist protesters hurling urine-filled balloons, stones, obscenities and pornography at small girls on their way to school also shocked people here who had grown up with the Troubles.

"It was never aimed at the kids before," say mothers, shaking their heads, their eyes filling again with tears. On September 4 last year, Holy Cross's second day back after the summer break, a blast bomb went off, causing pandemonium inside the school as well as out. "It was horrific," says Anne Tanney. "Parents were crying, children were crying. They didn't know which classes they would be in."

She put emergency measures in place for the next day - that children should go straight to their newly assigned classrooms, that parents could stay in school all day if they wanted, that teachers would not speak to the media, and none of them would listen to the news during the day. "I just knew that the best thing for the children would be routine, that we had to calm them down and be a haven," she says.

The chief constable of the Police Force of Northern Ireland (formerly the Royal Ulster Constabulary), Sir Ronnie Flanagan, guaranteed parents and children safe passage forthe new school year. Staff believed that the terror attacks in New York on September 11 would put an end to the protests, but the situation dragged on, to the increasing distress of children. While battles raged outside, staff did their best to cope. Two weeks into term they went through class lists, discussing who was withdrawn, weepy or distracted. Sixty children were referred to the New Life Counselling Service, with which the school has longstanding links.

Since then, more girls have showed symptoms of distress, says the head; about 100 of the 200 pupils are receiving help. An inter-agency steering group - consisting of the NSPCC, social services, New Life, educational psychologists and Belfast's Family Trauma Centre - has been established to oversee the children's welfare.

In school, teachers allow children time to talk over their nightmares, are wary of impersonating scary voices in story time, give comfort when a child jumps into a teacher's arms in alarm after a whistle is blown in the panto. The education authority, the Belfast Education and Libraries Board, has provided three extra teachers to keep classes small. Yoga and extra art classes have been laid on.

"Who's still worried about coming to school?" asks the principal of senior classes P6 and P7, and a scattering of hands go up. But teaching and learning have to go on.

Theresa, who teaches P5 (eight and nine-year-olds), has been at the school for eight years. "This year they're definitely more unsettled," she says. "There's a fizziness about them, it's difficult to keep them on task and their attention spans are short. We're sensitive to what they've gone through and it's hard to draw the lines of discipline with them at the moment. We try to keep activities structured and give them a focus."

Holy Cross put on Saturday classes at another school ("where they could feel safe", says the head) for the P7 pupils, to try to compensate for the disruption. "We're continuing with teaching," says the head, who also has to deal with the extra administration the situation has generated.

In an attempt to respond to as many well-wishers as possible, staff are setting up a website and have mailed out thousands of specially made thank-you cards, signed by the headteacher. Anne Tanney has been on the radio - "Little did I think at the beginning of last year that we'd be known all over the world by the end of the year" - expressing her hope that the school can return to normal. Although she doesn't say it, it seems as if she now has to insulate the school from the well-wishers, if normality is ever to be achieved.

Teachers' own needs were put on hold at the height of the trouble - "you couldn't take a day or a week off," says one. "The children couldn't cope with any change." Crisis management displaced all other considerations. But teachers had nightmares, too. One dreamt the school had been destroyed by trailers sliding down a mountainside. she searched the wreckage for one of her pupils but emerged empty-handed. "We felt so helpless," she says, of the violent days. "But so much needed to be done."

"The whole school was special needs," remarks the school's special needs co-ordinator. "But when you're teaching, there's little time to talk." Two training days planned for English earlier this year were devoted to stress-busting instead. "The teachers were able to talk about what was happening," says Anne Tanney. "It was then that we realised teachers themselves were very stressed." Young teachers - one at Holy Cross is in her first post - were particularly vulnerable. A low point came for one when a child said: "Bad men are going to shoot my mummy in the head." She struggled to find a reassuring response.

One positive by-product of the situation has been the powerful bonding between staff and staff, parents and parents, and parents and staff. "Maria", an experienced infant teacher, took up her post at Holy Cross in the summer term that the trouble began. "I couldn't leave," she says. "It's made me more loyal to the school. It's been great from the point of view of getting to know the staff quickly."

"Before, we would all have just waved at each other," says 34-year-old Elaine Burns, chair of the parents' support group. "Now, we've been forced together. If there's one good thing that's come out of this, it's the bonding."

One mural on the walls of Holy Cross bears witness to the co-operation that has always taken place with Wheatfield, the Protestant primary opposite. Teachers from both schools used to meet each September to plan the year's joint projects. Now an armoured vehicle sits on the road between them. "We haven't done it this year, which is a pity," says Anne Tanney. "It's important for Northern Ireland that we show we can live together, that we can reduce fear. We have to try to do something about it. We have to get back to that again."

THE MOTHERS

Holy Cross mothers have formed the habit of meeting for coffee in the monastery down the road, after dropping off their children. Father Aidan Troy makes the priests' common room and kettle available to them. They buy buns at the baker's and come here to debrief. They know it is more about counselling than coffee. "Come off the pills and deal with the life," they tell each other, reliving what all say has been the worst time of their lives so far.

"What's a whore?" their children asked. What happened to the police dog they saw with its leg hanging off, the day of the pipe bomb? "You lied to me," older girls challenge. "You said it was fireworks."

Mary, 35, has a 10-year-old, Isabel, at Holy Cross, and two teenage sons. "She's changed a lot," she says. "She's very angry. The older ones are angry, the younger ones are scared." Even though the protests have ended, life in Mary's household is not back to normal. "Isabel's very hard to handle. She had that much attention when it was going on, and we let her get away with things. The boys were neglected, they were getting angry as well. My whole life was that school for months and months. we didn't talk about anything else."

Isabel, who had walked to school on her own for three years, will never do so again, says her mother. "I wouldn't dream of letting her go up that road now." Children are still too scared to walk on the pavement. they urge their mothers to walk in the middle of the road, as the police directed them to do during the protests.

Even though she attended Holy Cross herself, Mary thought often about removing her daughter from the school. up to 20 girls have left and numbers for next autumn's intake are down by 50 per cent. "I didn't know if I was doing the right thing," she says. "I was in two minds. But our priests said it was a fundamental right to walk to school with your child."

among the protesters, Mary recognised women she had worked with in a garment factory and used to bump into at the leisure centre. "We were friends, we would have spoken in the town. Then those people squealed my name in the street."

Like the other mothers, she won't go on her own into the centre of Belfast now, nor take children out in their uniforms. "These kids didn't know what a Protestant was," says Mary. "Now, if they see a Union Jack on a lamppost they hide on the floor of the car and say, 'They're going to kill us. Will I zip up my coat, because I've got my uniform on?'" Despite their own terrible hurt, the parents have to try to give their children a wider perspective. "She's one changed wee girl," says Mary, "but I don't want her to be feeling for the rest of her life that she hates these people."

Wendy Wallace is education feature writer of the year

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