Watching Six Nations rugby on television and Top 14 rugby online from France, the game seems filled with glamour and excitement, a far remove from the game played by school students in unglamourous places.
Stopped at a road junction in a bland Dublin suburb one winter’s day, I sat and watched a schoolboy. He was maybe fourteen, perhaps fifteen. The bag of schoolbooks weighed heavy in one hand. His sports bag was hung strangely around his neck, as though it had swung around from where it should have been. He was awkward, gawky and uncoordinated. It was a bitterly cold afternoon and he was walking home from school in his rugby shirt and shorts; hastening back to where there would be warmth and comfort.
I watched him walk across the road at the traffic lights. No mummy in a BMW or Mercedes to collect him at the school gate. No-one from his family had been to see him play. He walked home alone; nobody talking with him along the way about the game and about the day; and about all the things that fill the conversation in those years. If he was like his contemporaries I knew in neighbouring houses, he would get home and leave his bags in the hall and grab something to eat and look at his homework and look at the television and sit in his room and wonder about a world where gawky teenage boys who lived in council houses didn’t seem to have much of a place.
I wanted to get out of my car and shout to him. “Hey, it’s OK. Life can turn out OK. It doesn’t matter if you’re awkward and if you don’t have money and if you walk home alone. It’s OK. I’ve been there and done that. Life can turn out all right”.
I didn’t though. It would have sounded absurd. I would have run away if some mad old stranger had started telling me about life, particularly one dressed as a priest.
He walked into the housing estate and the lights turned green and I drove on.
It is more than eight years since I originally wrote this post at the beginning of February 2006. By now, he will be twenty-two or twenty-three years of age. I sometimes regret not having the courage to wind down the car window and not call out a word of encouragement, “hope the match went well” or similar. I hope life turned out all right for him.
Perhaps pain is a necessary part of being fifteen; it’s just that it doesn’t seem to be handed out in equal measures.