A year before my schoolteacher had a terrible breakdown, he terrorized us all on a daily basis. What a schoolroom that was -- part concentration camp, part asylum.
Lessons were held in a high roofed, high windowed room at the top of the building. If you were passing by on the street you could often hear his shouts.
In the last year that he taught at our school he had become obsessed with Irish grammar. Of course teaching it to us, his terrified charges, offered him ample opportunities to punish us for our mistakes.
“Feicim an fear atá sásta,” he would say. I see the man who was satisfied.
But looking at him, with his facial twitches and his eyes out on stalks, it was hard to imagine that he’s known a moment’s satisfaction in his life. “Agus aris,” he would say. And again.
Martin Murphy was 12 like me, but working class. He had a kind, open face and a touching inability to retain arcane Irish tenses.
And so every day, without fail, the cane would descend around his ears like Pentecostal fire. “Agus aris,” said the principle, with mounting intensity.
I usually got it right. One particular day I didn’t. But my father had status and connections and, distracted as he was, I could see the principle calculate.
My schoolmates looked on in silence, wearily anticipating a judicial travesty. Would he dare? Or would there be a swift exoneration?
No, determined our teacher, the proclamation said cherish all the children equally, there really was nothing for it. He made me hold out my hands at arms length, palms turned upward.
I noticed that he had chosen ash wood for his cane, and that he had wrapped green tape around both ends. It gave a terrifying whooshing sound as it knifed the air in two. Then, connecting with my small for my age hands, it echoed through the room with an unearthly smack.
It smarted, badly. Even at the age of 12 I already knew this -- caning isn’t undertaken to punish the receiver. It’s undertaken to relieve the giver.
Generations of Irish men were raised like this. And no one at the time had a word to say about it.
Occasionally a concerned parent, usually a man, would arrive at the school gate to confront him, but it was usually to threaten violence, not discuss falling school grades.
Ireland was changing, corporal punishment would shortly be outlawed, and mental health issues would stop being so taboo, but not quite yet. Not in time to help us. That meant we still had to run the terrifying daily gauntlet he had prepared for us.
The adults in my town knew this was going on but they didn't intervene. Not a word was said about it. Many of them had had worse experiences themselves with other teachers years earlier. That was how they rationalized it to themselves.
Besides, my teacher had been a good man, it was sad to see him unravel, and it would have been a confirmation that he was unraveling if they intervened.
In Ireland nothing brings the nation to a halt faster than an issue that is crying out for resolution. We are a cautious people, reflexively conservative, we like to anticipate where the path will take us, and we don't set out until we think we know. It can make us far too slow to act.
Now, I can see that my teacher had once been a very good one once. But he needed help, and what he got instead was silence. And that silence papered over the truth of what was happening to him -- and us -- from that day to this.
It was very hard to be young and entrusted to an adult who's increasingly erratic behavior startled us. Honestly, it was hard enough growing up to begin with, we weren't equipped for this challenge yet, but apparently neither was our community.
It's common to read articles lamenting how much more authentic, how much more laudable Ireland (and it's people) was in the old days. I don't agree. My heart goes out to my old teacher now, because he meant well, and he was simply overwhelmed.
The thing that got to him, the thing that spread to us, the enemy of us all, was silence. Breaking that silence is the greatest work we can do.
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