Monday, 5 March 2012

The Happiest Days of our Lives?

When I was ten years old we moved from Wicklow, on the east coast of Ireland, to Sligo on the north-west coast. It was quite a long distance, which meant for us children leaving friends and familiar places definitively behind us. It also meant going to a new school – and that shortly before the end of a school year.

There is a strong tradition of segregated education in Ireland, and so my brother and I landed in St. Antony’s National School for boys, run by a congregation of Catholic teaching brothers. Boys arrived in St. Antony’s in Second or Third Class and it was traditional that classes generally remained with the same teacher until the boys had completed Sixth Class and moved on to Secondary School. My younger brother was lucky enough to be put in the Third Class of a brother who was a born teacher and became something of a beloved legend in the town. In his late eighties, half blind and deaf, he amazingly turned up at my brother’s funeral three months ago, over thirty-eight years after their ways had parted.

I was placed in the class of Thomas Mooney, joining around fifty other ten-year-old boys in our own peculiar blackboard jungle. We were a mixed bunch, mirroring the town in which we lived; one or two kids from wealthier families, a spread of middle and working class youngsters and around seven or eight representatives of what would be called “poor white trash” in parts of the USA. These were children who were more or less disengaged from the whole educational process, missing frequently, mostly not having schoolbooks or anything else with them. The requirement to do or present homework seemed generally foreign to them and they exuded a general atmosphere of resigned untouchability, occasionally tempered with an undertone of dangerous, unpredictable violence, something reinforced by the fact that most of them were up to three years older than the rest of us, having frequently repeated classes. They were just hanging around at school, barely literate, waiting to achieve the age of fourteen, when they could legally get out of a system with which they had no identification and – if they were lucky – find occasional work as labourers somewhere.

A group of over fifty ten-year-old boys is a pretty unruly, often savage mob. A teacher in control of such a group needs an unconscious, all-encompassing, completely confident sense of his own authority, otherwise he is lost before he begins. And Thomas Mooney did not have that authority.

He may have had it previously and he may have achieved it subsequently, but my classmates and I encountered him at a particularly vulnerable stage in his life. When I met him he was around forty years old and had come to St. Antony’s only recently, after the small country school in which he had worked had been closed, a victim of rationalisation. The contrast between dealing with a small number of country children of both sexes, spread over a number of classes all taught by the same teacher in the same room, and a large class of harder, more sophisticated town boys must have been considerable for him. But there were deeper reasons for his debilitating lack of confidence than just this.

Thomas Mooney was married to a woman he loved deeply. They had no children and his wife was seriously ill, suffering (as I am now fairly certain) from chronic deep depression. How do I know this? Because, in his despair, Mr. Mooney told us of it, frequently, at some length.

Was he trying to win our sympathy? At the time I thought so and – along with my classmates, with the callous cruelty of ten-year-olds in a mob – I despised him for it. With the infinite wisdom accrued through a whole decade of life, I judged that he had realised that he lacked that control which was the basic prerequisite for his job and was trying to substitute it by appealing to our better natures. If such was the case, he had miscalculated very badly.

It is not that ten-year-olds don’t have better natures; they do, but they are also in the process of moral development and are subject to many other powerful motivations, one of the strongest being peer pressure. Add to this the fact that children from a very young age have a finely developed sense of the security with which adults perceive their own authority and you can understand why Thomas Mooney never had a chance with us.

He was, at the time, a deeply unhappy man, a subtle, sensitive person questioning many of the fundamental certainties on which his life had been based, and this had fatal consequences for his control over the mob we were. He was the teacher, the enemy, and we sensed his weakness, judged him accordingly, and there was little he could do to reverse this instinctive implacable judgement of failure. He was like a poker player holding a pair of deuces whose opponents were well aware of what he held in his hand – bluffing was useless.

There was an alternative available to him, one hallowed by tradition, and in general accepted use in the school; that of violence and pain. Corporal punishment was, at that time, still legally permitted in Irish schools and most teachers still used a bamboo cane as a disciplinary and pedagogical instrument. At the end of every pause and lunch break a queue of boys could be seen waiting apprehensively before the principal’s office; waiting for the cold, impersonal administration of “six of the best,” to be endured as a consequence for misbehaviour. You presented the flat of the palm of each hand alternatively, open at arms length, anticipating the whish, the crack, and the burning pain. We did not question this – it was an inherent component of the general culture of school – but it reinforced our general feeling of education as a state of low-level warfare between pupils and teachers, a fundamental division between us and them, where they had nearly all the power.

Thomas Mooney refused to use the cane in his classroom. Instead of respecting him for this, we judged it as a further sign of weakness and despised him all the more for it. As a result, his class was generally unruly, undisciplined and loud. He frequently left us for long periods to our own devices, setting us work to do while he sat at his desk, doing I no longer remember what. Maybe nothing at all. It didn’t really concern me.

Though the work he set us to do was sometimes interesting. In Fifth Class, he told us we should begin a project of writing our own books and occasionally showed interest in what we were producing. Most of my classmates took these long periods for personal creativity as an opportunity for goofing off, but I became involved in a complex Buck Rogers-type science fiction epic, heavily influenced by the style of Leslie Charteris’ Saint series (I had discovered the books around that time and they served to increase my admiration for Simon Templar, initially awakened by Roger Moore’s TV depiction of him). However, at a certain stage he lost interest in it and my masterpiece was never finished.

When he applied himself to it, he could be an excellent teacher. He encouraged my interest in history and tried to instil in us a sense of the importance of politics and debate. It was a classroom in which debate was frequent; given his lack of fundamental authority, those of us with rhetorical ability could engage him in endless discussions, or encourage him to hold forth on themes which interested him. But, more often than not, he was listless and unmotivated and frequently avoided teaching subjects, like the Irish which (following the official national ethos of independent Ireland should one day resume its long-lost position as first language of the country) was compulsory and generally hated by a majority of the pupils. Thomas Mooney spoke fluent Irish himself, but seemed to find the effort of pounding it into our thick reluctant skulls too much. Our lack of progress here would cause a number of my fellow pupils serious problems later on (Irish remained compulsory as a major subject right up to the end of secondary school), but, fortunately for me, my parents spotted my deficits pretty quickly and arranged for me to get extra tuition outside school.

When we left him at the end of Sixth Class to move on to secondary education, he took over another group of eight-year-olds in Third Class, but a number of years later I heard he subsequently left to take over a position in a rural school. I suspect that he was very glad of the change and hope that things worked out better for him away from St. Antony’s.

For there was something fundamentally very evil going on in that school, though my brothers and I were fortunately, miraculously untouched by it. During the years I was there, five of the ten teachers (three brothers and two laymen) were sexually abusing many of the boys entrusted to their care. One of them was the tall young brother teaching the class parallel to ours, a class in which I was often a guest on the (not infrequent) occasions when Mr. Mooney called in sick. His ready use of the cane ensured that he had no discipline problems. He also had the custom of having boys sit on his lap for long periods of time – fortunately, he had his particular pets and we guests were not selected for this “special” treatment.

In the many court cases which have taken place since the whistle was finally blown a little more than a decade ago, a number of other teachers gave testimony that they were unaware of what was going on. As far as I can ascertain, Thomas Mooney was not called to testify. Even if he had been, given his detachment and preoccupation with his own problems, I would guess that he would also say that he didn’t know anything. And yet, that visceral part of me which does not always comply with my rational world-view wonders whether the underlying miasma of evil and misery in the school didn’t contribute somehow to his obvious unhappiness.

Those of us who were pupils there – apart from the unfortunates who were the victims of abuse – didn’t realise that there was something fundamentally wrong, but then, of course, kids usually don’t have the comparative apparatus to judge such things. We knew that it was a cold, hard, unloving sort of place, but it was school and we didn’t expect anything else. One of the effects it did have on me was that casual brutalisation which led to my harsh boyish judgement of Mr. Mooney. Under different circumstances I might have learned much more from him and today I regret that I didn’t. If he is still alive today and, by some remote chance, happens to read this, I would like to say to him that I now cherish him retrospectively much more than I did at the time.

(“St. Antony’s” and “Thomas Mooney” are pseudonyms. For those whose stomachs can take it, this link leads to an account of the abuse cases in the school and contains a laudation of the exceptional brother I mentioned in this piece who was my brother’s teacher)

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