I went to school in a dreary, grey and green national school on the south side of Dublin. Everything in the building was worn and faded. The school seemed as if it had once been great, but had become dilapidated since its glory days. Our uniform consisted of a green jumper, green tie and grey trousers. The teachers, for the most part, were from the country and encouraged you to speak Irish in every thing you did. If you wished to fart, it was necessary to raise your hand and ask for permission as Gaeilge. There were no canteen facilities of any kind. The only way to luncheon was through packed lunch. Ten minutes before break time, classrooms bustled with the clatter of lunch boxes on desks. The smell of bread and crisps wafted through the room.
I have a particular memory of one such lunch time when I was ten and in fifth class. That particular day, I had jam sandwiches, a carton of juice and a non-descript chocolate bar. I tucked into the sandwich with ferocious hunger. The guy I shared a desk with was okay compared to the rest of the gobshites in my class. His name was Conn. He was good natured and a little abstract in his thinking. He and I were friends. We often got in trouble for messing and talking. It was fair to say he took the blame for most of our antics. One such lunch time he put a challenge to me.
“I bet you can’t fit that entire sandwich in your mouth,” he challenged me. “I don’t mean half a sandwich. I mean two slices of bread.”
“I bet I can,” I answered confidently.
I rolled the sandwich into a tight, white ball and bunged it into my gob. The large glob of bread was hard to manoeuvre in my mouth. I did my best to bite it as much as I could. I aimed to reduce the size of the bread-y sphere; chomp, chomp, chomp. Conn watched as I wrestled with the bread. It was proving more challenging than anticipated. I tried to chew the bread. All was not well. The bread had become lodged at the back of my throat. I picked up my carton of juice and squirted some into my mouth. I thought this would lubricate the glob of bread from my throat. Instead, the juice mixed with the starch and seemed to form a paste. The dough ball was well and truly lodged. I attempted to speak. No words came out. A gurgling noise was all I could hear. What the hell is happening? I thought. Oh my God I am choking. I stood to my feet and attempted another gurgle. This failed to grab the teacher’s attention. Conn watched with horror. I slammed one hand down on the table. The teacher, Mr Stack, looked up from his newspaper and assessed the situation.
“You’re choking,” he announced loudly to the glass.
I confirmed this with a gurgle. He jumped up from his desk and made his way to me. He spun me around into the Heimlich manoeuvre. I remember the faces of my fellow class pupils. All of them looked on open mouthed. The silence was tangible. From my rear Mr Stack delivered a blow to my stomach. A large piece of bread flew from my mouth a travelled across the room. I remember the embarrassment that swept over me. I even remember thinking how it must have looked. My strange thoughts were interrupted by a final application of pressure to my stomach. The remaining piece of bread dislodged, flew threw the air and bounced along the grotty, worn green carpet. I gasped for air. I was absolutely mortified. I dismissed suggestions to get a glass of water. I foraged for the pieces of bread, while wheezing and coughing; one lay about six feet from me next to the sink; the second nestled under someone’s desk. I deposited them in the bin to remove any evidence of the event.
In the play ground after lunch everyone informed me that the teacher had saved my life. This added to my embarrassment. After school, I stayed behind and thanked Mr. Stack for his quick thinking. It was very awkward. Eighteen years on, I doubt he’s forgotten the sight of bread flying from my mouth. I know I never will.