School for Scandal
10 SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL
On the first of September, Shaun parked in front of his new school lathered in sweat, having successfully negotiated the roundabout at Walkinstown for the first time alone. He met one of two more senior members of staff briefly in the staffroom and was relieved to hear three other recent graduates would be starting that day. The brief introductions came to an abrupt end when the principal arrived and asked the four new teachers to accompany her. It seemed a little strange that she didn’t exchange any pleasantries with her other staff colleagues, but Shaun put this down to the hectic nature of the first day back.
All four followed her up to the old block, which stank of a pungent detergent from the toilets at the end of the corridor. Apart from the unpleasant smell, this part of the school had old, inefficient radiators, high ceilings and linoleum flooring which amplified every sound. On this rainy September morning the building felt damp and gloomy and did little to inspire any enthusiasm for his chosen career.
Miss Boyle unlocked his classroom with a long old-fashioned key. The teacher’s desk was pushed over to the side near the window and the rows of desks almost touched the blackboard.
“You’ll have the pleasure of forty one pupils this year Mr. O Maslaigh,” she informed him, making use of the Gaelic form of his name.
“Thank you Miss O Bueel,” he answered, not being able to think of anything more appropriate. “
Don’t thank me,” she grinned, turning on her heels, “thank the Minister for Education.”
Several minutes later, he was collecting two long lines of children from the junior yard. A group of mothers hovered in the background and whispered to one another when he appeared from the school building. He had his first real beard, which had taken him the whole summer to grow. He had hoped it would confer more authority, but at that moment he was simply relieved that it partly hid his cheeks which were burning under their stares.
The classroom looked even smaller once everybody was cramped together into their wooden desks. It didn’t take him long to appreciate how unbearable the high ceiling and the lino would make his working environment. He tried to hold onto the image of himself in the role of the stunningly attractive Sidney Poitier. It was his favourite film, and just like the hero he wanted to inspire kids like him to broaden their horizons.
The principal appeared later in the morning, just as he was shouting at the top of his voice for attention.
“Mr. O Maslaigh,” she interrupted, “I presume you haven’t thought to bring a teabag so here is one of mine and a cup. The electric kettle is on the shelf,” she said pointing towards the back of the room. “Teachers generally take their break in their rooms.”
He thanked her heartily for the teabag, trying to hide his true feelings.
“Was he destined to work here for God knows how long?” he asked himself, “limited to the briefest of encounters with his colleagues?”
He felt there was something terribly Kafkaesque about the whole situation.
When the bell rang he walked the class to the outside door, failing utterly in his attempt to keep order. Only two hours down and he already felt totally defeated. He judged himself against the BBC videos, he remembered from college, with perfectly disciplined lines of Stepford children following their skilled and dedicated teacher in silence.
He sipped his tea from the principal’s china cup and counted the minutes until the bell shattered his few moments of peace. He hadn’t inspired anybody yet; in fact he had spent the morning shouting, earning himself resentful looks and a near stampede when he let them go. Was this the Promised Land after all the years of striving?
Later in the morning, a young, attractive, fair-haired woman opened the door and greeted him with a friendly smile.
“Why don’t we have you this year?” one of the pupils moaned, forgetting herself for a second.
“That’s not very nice now is it?” the attractive teacher replied, her smile nonetheless showing she had appreciated the compliment. “I’m sure Mr. O Maslaigh has plenty of new ideas from training college,” she encouraged.
It was clear from the reaction she aroused, that they had enjoyed her class and would have greeted her return with unanimous approval.
“As you know,” she continued, “football and basketball will be starting up again next week. Training is on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
Shaun was shattered to hear she was not only a model teacher, but the sports coach as well. His feeble attempts at sport would be judged against her expertise and enthusiasm. He maintained his fake smile, trying to conceal an avalanche of self-doubt.
“Where did you go at small break?” she asked, interrupting his train of thought.
“The principal brought a teabag and said the staff took their break in their rooms,” he explained unable to hide his frustration.
“Just make sure to come down for big lunch,” she ordered “and you can tell her ladyship what to do with her teabags.”
Shaun was determined not to waste a minute of big break. The class were lined up at the door before the bell went and threatened with double homework if they made a sound. He rushed past the principal’s office less than a minute after the bell, sighing with relief that her door was closed and he wouldn’t have to explain his insubordination.
When she appeared in the staffroom to interrupt their twenty minutes with numerous school notices, the staff continued their conversations as if she was invisible. She stopped briefly, staring belligerently at those most susceptible to intimidation, achieving some degree of quiet before she continued. Having completed her messages, she left, as abruptly as she had entered, deliberately leaving the door open behind her. At that point one of the older male colleagues rose to his feet and slammed the door loudly.
“Lady my arse,” he let out as he returned to his seat, “must have been born in a barn that one.”
“Now John,” cautioned one of the women, looking around at the new teachers, “let sleeping dogs lie.”
Shaun was exhausted when he returned that first day.
“I’ll have to lie down for an hour,” he told Granny as soon as he was finished the beans and pork chop she had made especially to mark his first day. He couldn’t remember ever going to bed in the afternoon before this.
The clock over his bookshelf showed eight when he woke.
“Shit,” he exclaimed jumping out of bed and pulling his clothes on. “Caragh will wonder where I got to.”
He had no way of ringing to explain, so he decided to risk of driving across the city, even if the heavy traffic scared him. He knew in advance that his mother’s opposition would be the biggest obstacle, but determined to stand up to her.
“I’m driving over to Caragh,” he informed, grabbing his jacket from the back of the chair.
“Don’t stay out too late,” she warned, the lack of opposition taking him by surprise, “you know you have school tomorrow.”
The look on Caragh’s face, when he arrived, told him that he had made the right decision.
“You wouldn’t believe the mad bat of a principal we have,” she told him before she had shut the front door behind him.
“I don’t believe it,” he told her, “half the schools in Ireland must be run by frustrated old spinsters.”
“Guess what?” Caragh continued, “She arrived in today just as everything was in uproar, holding two toilet rolls in her hand.
‘Don’t give them more than two squares at a time,’ she told me. Can you imagine that?”
He understood Caragh’s frustrations perfectly and felt better having someone to share with. He determined to forget about politics and concentrate on enjoying his time with Caragh.
It was past one when Shaun got home.
“How do you think your goin to get up for work in the mornin?” his mother’s angry voice asked as he climbed the stairs.
He didn’t care, any doubts he had about Caragh were gone. He would stay out half the night at the weekend and the car would afford more freedom than ever before.
The first year at school was difficult and the continual rows between the staff and the principal left a tense atmosphere hanging over the school. Nonetheless, Shaun was determined to achieve something with his class. His day was never long enough to cover all the work he had prepared at home. The weeks ran into months and before he realised it the evenings were getting longer and the weather was improving.
Shaun had always seen himself in the victim role, having had to fight against an unjust world, but now he was the authority figure for over forty eleven year olds. While he worked ceaselessly to prove himself in the classroom, his frustration with some of the weaker ones brought out the worst in him.
Wayne stands out in this regard. Shaun had tried his best to motivate him, but by this late stage in the year the boy has long given up making even the slightest effort. Half his books are missing from his schoolbag and no homework is ever done. His class work is untidy and almost totally illegible. The very sight of Wayne coming in late again is the last straw:
“Why do I have to be lumbered with him? I have enough to do with such a large class. Why couldn’t he be like Carol? Her work always perfect and her mother is so appreciative. Wayne’s mother can barely write. She should be ashamed to send in letters with so many basic mistakes. What a family of losers!”
The first two hours of the day are spent doing Gaelic. It is more than just another subject for Shaun, but Wayne hates Gaelic more than anything else. The other teachers didn’t seem to push it so much and he just got by, but this Mr. O Maslaigh is something else. Taking his book out as slowly as possible, he hopes O Maslaigh will pick on someone else for a change.
“Wayne, start reading the story we practiced yesterday.” Wayne knows he’s going to make a fool of himself and is reluctant to start.
“Wayne, don’t tell me you don’t even have the right page open.”
Wayne doesn’t answer – He looks at his neighbour’s book and tries to find the page.
“Come on Wayne get a move on – we don’t want to wait all day.”
There is a ripple of nervous laughter from the class. This drama has played out again and again. They don’t know why Mr. O Maslaigh just doesn’t leave Wayne alone. Any fool knows he’s useless, especially at Irish.
Wayne stands feeling humiliated. The cruel giggles of his classmates ring in his ears. The patches on the elbows of his stained sweater have burst, his clothes smell and he sits alone, because nobody will to share a desk with him. There isn’t even one supporting expression to look towards, least of all the teacher’s.
He tries to read the page they have been practicing since Monday, but every word elicits more giggles from those around him. He fights back the tears, but his eyes fill up. It has taken him an eternity to get through two lines and the harder words haven’t come up yet.
He stops and looks into the teacher’s face, pleading for mercy. His effort is in vain. O Maslaigh’s mocking expression encourages the gigglers and their jeering grows in volume.
“Why do I have to go to this crappy school?” Wayne thinks to himself. “Nobody likes me and O Maslaigh would throw a party if he could get rid of me. He knows I’m crap so why does he have to keep turning the knife in the wound? Just ask the good kids who know it all anyway.”
Shaun pulls the Irish reader from Wayne’s hands.
“When was the last time you did any homework, Wayyyne?” he asks rhetorically, scanning the class with a sarcastic grin on his face. Wayne hates it when he deliberately mispronounces his name. He is violated and helpless in this hell of O Maslaigh’s making.
“What were you doing the whole evening? Sitting in front of the TV eating crisps?”
Wayne’s anger rises seeing the self-satisfied look on O Maslaigh’s face. A ripple of laughter from his pets confirms the general support for his opinion.
“You know nothing about my life,” Wayne screams back silently. “You’re not the sort of person I would share any of my problems with. You just don’t care. Your heart is as hard as stone.”
He tries his best to blot out all memory of the previous evening: His dad with his cronies off in the pub; the ruined dinner on the table; his mother sitting on the arm of the sofa, looking out through the window, reprimanding a missing husband.
“Why did I marry you? You’re a selfish f- bastard. I should have listened to me mother. She knew you were no good from the start. What’s left for me now? I’d be better off dead. He’s off again spending our last few quid in the pub with his pals. I’m tied to this dump, looking after his f—king kids. .”
Wayne wants to tell her it will be all right, but experience has taught him to keep quiet. He had often got the back of her hand. He has often been the butt of her frustration. The baby is crying in the play pen. Its nappy hasn’t been changed in hours. The breakfast dishes are still in the sink, the house is a mess. It is freezing because the electricity has been cut off and the nappy smells to high heaven.
Wayne can’t understand why she just sits around smoking one cigarette after another and drinking, when so much needs to be done. The key turned in the lock and the father stumbles through the door.
“Fucking schoolbag, who left it there?” he complains. “Just stopped in for a quick one,” he claims half-heartedly, his speech indistinct from the alcohol.
He tries to put his arms around Wayne’s mother but she turns away.
“Get away you selfish fucker,” she yells pushing him roughly. “You’re always the fucking same, just interested in one thing.”
She goes to the playpen and takes the baby. Wayne knows this is, more for her safety than concern for the infant that she has ignored for hours. The drunken father sends the dinner plate flying across the room, smashing into pieces against the wall. The front door bangs and he’s off again.
“That’s the last you’ll see of me,” he threatens for the benefit of the neighbours who spy from behind their curtains.
The sound of angry footsteps grow fainter and more distant.
Wayne glares at O Maslaigh sitting at his desk with the Irish book in his hand. The last sentence he read is being mimicked to the entertainment of his classmates. Wayne focuses on the sarcastic grin on O Maslaigh’s face knowing he will remember it long after he had dropped out of school.
O Maslaigh recognises that look of contempt in Wayne’s face and with it the memory of Wilson with the dunce’s hat on his head comes back from his own childhood. The Brother floats across time and space. O Maslaigh tries to avoid his accusing eyes, but he stands there in the blackest of habits, with the leather still protruding from his pocket..
“You have forty one to deal with,” he accuses. “I had over sixty when I was your age and it didn’t bring the best out in me either. I didn’t like the monster the classroom turned me into. There was nothing for it, but to look for something else. Shame on you treating the poor child that way! I was sure the world had moved on.”
Shaun had no answer. He stood silently in his thoughts and promised himself he would never stoop to this level in a classroom again.
Caragh was turning twenty one at the end of June and Shaun was organising something special. It was their last weekend together before Shaun left for Madrid to teaching English at a private school for the summer. It was dusk when they arrived at the caravan park in Wexford late Friday evening. The farmer’s wife took the cash payment and handed over the keys to a mobile home that had seen better days. Still they were pleased to be alone and to leave the cares of Dublin behind them for a few days.
Bright sunlight woke them early the next morning and the sound of waves crashing called them to the beach. Having walked along the beautiful sandy beach, they retreated to the sand-dunes and found a sheltered spot to spread a blanket borrowed from the caravan. They gazed up into a cloudless sky. Shaun cradled Caragh’s head against his bare chest. She lay contentedly against him, and her expression told him she was fully a peace with herself and the world. Her sallow skin was drinking in the sun and her black hair gleamed in the sunlight as it tossed in the sea-breeze. Shaun would have given anything to feel the same way, but something inside was cheating him of the moment. He felt lost, lonely and empty and no end of soul-searching freed him from the thought that he was wasting his life.
“Hello Mr. O Maslaigh,” a twelve year old girl giggled, looking down from the dune above them.. She would have stared longer had her parents not pulled her along after them. They were already weighed down with deck-chairs and picnic bags and would have passed on had it not been for the girl’s curiosity.
Back at the caravan site, three heads peaked from behind the faded, cotton curtains in the caravan opposite.
“Don’t mind,” Caragh consoled, “we’ve had a lovely day didn’t we?.”
Shaun would have left for Dublin straight away, but he didn’t want to spoil it for Caragh and pretended as best he could.
Later that evening he disappeared to the car for a while and came back in with a carefully wrapped parcel and a huge 21 card in his arms.
“This is for you ,” he told her, holding them in her direction. The Caragh’s expression confused him.
“I’m twenty three,” she admitted through her tears.
“Did you think two years would have stopped me asking you out?” he demanded, kissing the tears away. “Maybe I would have saved a few pounds on the present,” he teased, “but you can keep it anyway.”
She laughed through the tears and hugged him as hard as she could.
“You won’t forget me in Madrid, will you?” she asked.
“Caragh, you are the best friend I’ve ever had, I would never do anything to hurt you.” he promised.
The Falkland War was on the front pages of all the complimentary newspapers on the Iberia flight to Madrid. It was the reason the board of directors had decided to advertise the summer jobs in the Irish press rather than reemploy the same British teachers. As well as teaching, Shaun used every free minute to train for the marathon in the hills nearby. Sometimes he took a few of the older male runners with him. The houses close to the school belonged to some of the wealthiest families in Madrid and the school was careful to reflect the values of these parents in its curriculum.
The trips organised by the school told him a great deal about the political sympathies of both the parents and the school directors. The excursion to Franco’s tomb stands out among these. The Irish teachers and the students were in high spirits as they travelled through the beautiful, fertile plains outside Madrid. Only the usually jovial caretaker sat silently at the back of the bus. The immense mausoleum which Franco had used slave labour to construct was over-powering. A group of young men appeared proudly wearing in fascist uniforms, marching in military formation and carrying a huge wreath which they placed before the general’s tomb. Jose beckoned to Shaun, tears running down his face:
“My father died building this,” he explained, putting a finger over his lips before falling silent again.
Shaun collected the eight hundred crisp new Sterling notes at the end of the month and left for the airport to collect Caragh. Their first night was at the school and the next morning they headed for the centre of Madrid, where they stayed at the university hostel for a few days. After that they went to Granada and on to Seville.
Caragh loved the sun and took to the relaxed Spanish way of life.
“Wouldn’t you want to live here?” she asked.
“No,” Shaun answered abruptly, “it’s only a beautiful facade, but there is something cruel and insidious behind the scenes.”
Shaun had read enough to understand how the Spanish church had backed the fascists against the communists and had argued that Franco was the lesser of two evils. They were left with the legacy of that in the eighties, leaving many Spaniards disillusioned.
Two small classes of travellers moved into the old block on Shaun’s return to school in September. The locals were very much against the Knackers, as they called them, and the board of management gave in by segregating them. Travellers started school a half hour later than the others and had yard time when the others returned to their classes.
Shaun’s classroom was the closest to the travellers, affording him more contact with Fiona and Pat the two new traveller teachers, as they became known. He soon became acutely aware of the problems faced by travellers and the prejudices towards them and even their teachers. Circumstances isolated Fiona and Pat from the rest of the staff. Miss. Boyle insisted they kept a close eye on their groups at all times, leaving them occupied at the normal break times.
The subject of travellers hadn’t greatly troubled Shaun before, but now he it was hard to ignore. Travellers were seen as a problem and the reaction from the other pupils was openly hostile, but even that paled into insignificance compared with the open opposition of parents.
“I’m sure that old bitch Boyle is taking them in just to spite us,” one irate woman ranted as traveller children passed her in the schoolyard.
“You might have a point Mary,” agreed the other, “I know for a fact that other principals have enough cop on to send them on their way telling them there are no vacancies, but Her Ladyship takes in every last Knacker.”
“Some of the teachers might find themselves out of a job next year,” another threatened. “A few of us are seriously considering taking our kids out.”
“Teaching Travellers, handicaps our job chances,” Fiona explained to Shaun, “my prospects of employment are slim as I’ve been doing this for the last ten years.”
“That’s so unfair, you are one of the most dedicated teachers I know,” Shaun said outraged.
“The union rep. told us unofficially of course that principals just won’t employ anyone, who has taught travellers,” Fiona continued, “That’s just the way it is.”
Later in the year, pure chance brought Shaun’s class into direct contact with the travellers in a skating rink in Crumlin on their class outing. Having lost the battle to get forty children to stay in an orderly line, he bumped into Fiona and Pat, looking equally frustrated at the rink. The travellers had never been admitted to a skating rink and were unwilling to humiliate themselves in front of the other skaters, who made no attempt to hide their disgust at the idea of having to share a rink with Knackers.
“Come on,” shouted Fiona in the end, pulling two less than convinced Traveller girls into the rink with her.
Meanwhile, Shaun’s class were enjoying themselves enormously, singing with the music and gliding skilfully around the rink. Fiona conceded failure with her group and all three teachers went for coffee. When they returned their mouths hung open. The hated travellers were all skating being supported by Shaun’s class.
“If we’d planned this,” Fiona commented, “we’d have just got their backs up and failed totally.
The atmosphere on the bus back to the school was indescribable. The travellers had been forced to use public transport because the private bus carrier had refused to accept them and Shaun insisted they take the same bus back to the school. The driver didn’t look too pleased, but the rare sight of Travellers and settled children making friends forced him to keep his mouth shut. Shaun waited for feedback from parents, but none came. Nobody congratulated him and nobody voiced any complaint. Several weeks had passed before
he received a letter from the board of management.
Dear Mr. O Maslaigh,
It has come to our attention that you planned a group excursion together with the two traveller classes without prior consultation with either the school board or the principal. Taking the reaction of concerned parents and the volatile traveller situation in the area into account, we would ask you to consult with us in advance in future, before undertaking any ventures of this type.
Rev. Chairman BOM
Shaun couldn’t believe his eyes. He was furious.
“Should he compose an appropriate response?” he asked himself.
He shuddered when he considered the risks he had taken for the Worker’s Party and now he was on the verge of jumping into hot water again.
“Before I stand up to authority again,” he told himself, I want to be sure that I will feel the same about it when they take revenge by standing in the way of promotion.”
He determined to rest over it, but the injustice of the whole situation just wouldn’t leave him in peace. Two weeks later, he drafted a reply, focusing on the responsibility a Catholic school has to live up to its own ethos.
Following your recent correspondence, I am faced with the dilemma of how to possibly create a Catholic ethos in my classroom. If I bow to your request I will be forced to go against everything Christ stood for?
Can a Catholic school board stand over the absolute segregation of travellers, even to the extent of criticising teachers for refusing to block the unplanned contact which took place when two hitherto segregated groups met at a skating rink?
Personally, I believe there is a responsibility on teachers and indeed the school board to support initiatives and develop policies which lessen the prejudice towards Travellers.
We should be setting an example instead of allowing ourselves be intimidated by the more extreme elements among the parents.
Shaun O Maslaigh
The bright sun which accompanied his journey to school the following morning encouraged him to knock on the principal’s door and ask for her support before he sealed the envelope. Miss Boyle read the letter carefully and looked at him with a grin on her face. He sensed a hint of respect in her expression and waited optimistically for her answer.
“Mr O Maslaigh,” she started, “while I sympathise with what you are trying to do, I have to refuse your request for reasons which I’m not prepared to go into at the present time.”
She stood up and brought him to the door.
“I appreciate you coming to me with this,” she confided. “I wish you every success,” she smiled as she closed the door behind him.
The Board of Management made no attempt to defend their letter. The receipt of his letter was acknowledged, but that was all.
Unlike Shaun’s engagement with the Worker’s Party, I am still proud that I took them to task. It certainly didn’t win me any brownie points, but it was as close as I came to heroism. Others stand in front of tanks, but I write letters.
Perhaps I have generally played it too safe in life, but the present increase in xenophobia has forced me more and more to be careful to sit on the right side of the fence. Life has blessed me. God has been very gentle with me and I want to pay that back somehow.