Thursday 2 December 2010


Here I must make a shape at beginning to introduce the Rogues' Gallery or the Heavy Artillery, or whatever you care to call them. Not that I particularly want to introduce them; the very thought of them sends a shiver down my spine. But each of them contributed their own peculiar noxious vapour to the general miasma, and a couple of them were directly involved in the disaster that happened in my first senior year. For light relief, which I am very much in need of, I will also throw in a few sketches of priests and teachers who weren't too bad. 
Since I have already mentioned him, I'll start with the maths teacher, who was probably the most memorable teacher in the college. And by the way, for those who are liable to get confused about the words 'college' and 'boarding school', there is no difference between the two terms here. The institution I languished in for five years had the word 'college' in its official title - 'St X's College' - even though strictly speaking it was a boarding school, a secondary school rather than any kind of third-level place. And so, for reasons of preventing too much repetition, and to avoid getting into a complete lather about terminology, from now on I'll use whichever word I feel like, whichever sounds best in the context.
The maths teacher was certainly our most unforgettable teacher, and I'll bet a hundred pounds that anyone who had the misfortune to be taught by him will never be able to get him out of his head. I know I won't. There was something larger than life, worthy of fable, about him, even though his behaviour and influence were almost entirely negative. He was a stocky man of medium height, with a bull-head and a Roman nose, and he wore the same jacket and trousers day after day, month after month, and the seat and upper legs of the trousers gave off a slimy kind of sheen. He was physically formidable to us juniors, and he frequently indulged his temper by giving an erring student a belt or two across the head. But the greatest impression he made on us was with his tongue.
This teacher, who was nicknamed Jake because he wrote a weekly column about the greyhound races under that pen-name in the local newspaper, had a penchant for oratory; he was a bit of a demagogue. He spent at least half his classroom time walking up and down, making speeches about the importance of study, while the boys sat bent over their maths books, swotting the latest geometric theorem or quadratic equation.
'Foghlaim, foghlaim, foghlaim, fellows. Study, study, study, boys. Do it for your dear parents' sake, who are working so hard to send you to this place, to get the good education which was denied themselves. Think of your dear parents, fellows. How are they going to feel when the results come out, and you are the only one in your parish who has failed? How will you feel when you see the faces of your poor parents as they take your results out of that envelope? Lord God, fellows, study now to avoid that tragedy. And a tragedy it would be, fellows, to have the brains and the opportunity and not to use them. You'll get to know me, boys: I call a spade a spade, and not an agricultural implement. Lord God, lads, did you never hear that the game isn't over till the final whistle blows? Keep at it, fellows, don't slacken off. I'll tolerate no wasters in my class.
'Be like Cosgrave there. Foghlaim, foghlaim, foghlaim. Take a leaf out of Cosgrave's book. Cosgrave is doing it for his dear parents, and so should you, saying to yourselves, I'll conquer this. Don't let it beat you, fellows. Foghlaim, foghlaim, foghlaim.'
Sometimes Jake would fall silent and, leaning one hand against the wall, poke absent-mindedly at his ears with a cotton bud. Occasionally during these reveries, he'd even scratch his backside. We had to stifle our sniggers, and look forward to an unrestrained discussion of Jake's crooked backside-scratching finger at recreation time. But right now, tension was mounting towards the moment when the maths teacher would break off his harangue and call a boy up to the blackboard to do a 'cut' on yesterday's geometric theorem or demonstrate his grasp of simultaneous equations. There was great anticipation when the boy who had been put 'on the mat', in the phrase relished by Jake, turned out to be one of the current favourites.
'Cosgrave, come up and show them how do do it.... Do you not know how to do it, fellow?'
'No, sir.'
'Come on, Cosgrave, don't let me down. Don't you remember what I told you yesterday, about the first thing to do in a cut like this? Do you know the first step at least?'
'No, sir.'
'Nah sir! Nah sir! Nasser! Lord God, fellow, I'm hearing enough about Nasser these days. He's the President of Egypt. Sit down, you idiot. Come up here, Ryan. You show them. What's the first step in this cut?'
'Drop a perpendicular, sir.'
'Drop a perpendicular from where, fellow? From the ceiling?'
(Obsequious laughter.)
'No, sir. Drop a perpendicular from the apex to the base of the triangle, sir.'
'Good man, Ryan. Do you hear that, Cosgrave? And what have you, Ryan, now that you've dropped the perpendicular plumb from the apex to the base of the triangle? Tell the fool.'
'You have two right-angled triangles, sir.'
'And the rest is plain sailing. Well done, Ryan. Sit down.'
And the next day:
'Why can't you all be like Ryan there, fellows? Foghlaim, foghlaim, foghlaim, saying to yourselves I'm not going to let it beat me, I'm going to conquer this. πr˚ and 2πr for your dear parents' sake. 3.142857, fellows, repeated to infinity. And what's infinity? An 8 lying on its back, that's what infinity is. Come up here, Ryan, and write it on the board for them.'
'Good man, sit down. Take a leaf out of Ryan's book, fellows. He's not a waster, like Cosgrave there. I have an egg down for you, Cosgrave. Oh yes, fellow. You can count on that.'
Cosgrave was a serious, highly-strung chap and he took it very badly when the maths teacher toppled him from his pedestal of praise. In fact, he took it so badly that shortly afterwards he did a bunk and never returned. A rumour circulated among the boys that he was being sent to a psychiatric hospital for a spell, to recover from his mental torment. He was the first victim of the college's Heavy Artillery that I encountered during my stay, but he obviously doesn't figure very much in this narrative, having left the field of battle so early - except perhaps as a foretaste of events to come. 
Luckily, it turned out that I had brains, a fact that wasn't entirely clear when I was under my father's tutorship. It isn't a great idea, a son having his father as a teacher, especially when the father hates teaching and wants to become some kind of artist, as my father did, but felt he couldn't leave his secure and despised job, having clocked up six children in as much time as it takes to say 'conception'. 
Unlike my father, the authorities in the college seemed to relish what they were about. They also seemed to know the score: this is what you must do if you want to have a fulfilled life later on; there is no alternative. Just knuckle down to it; there's a light of future well-being at the end of the tunnel. They even communicated certainty in the confident way they walked up and down the centre aisle of the study hall. I got the message, at least during those first two years, because my exam results were outstanding, and I must have broken some kind of record for the longest ever tenure of a place in the math teacher's pantheon of praise. 
But nothing lasts forever, and the maths teacher was biding his time, waiting for a flaw to appear in my armour, a lapse of concentration when I was on the mat. In the first term of my third year, the long-expected crack appeared.
Right from the beginning of that term, there was something stale and unenthusiastic in Jake's worship of me, as if he felt I had been a god for too long and that I was getting used to my divinity, which would be a bad thing for a mere mortal. Then one day I was summoned to the blackboard, and failed to solve a fairly simple cut.
'Sit down, you fool. Oh I've been watching you, O'Driscoll. I've been keeping my eye on you. You're a bit of a fluke, fellow. It's a pity but it's true. O'Driscoll here is a pure fluke, fellows. He's one of those boyos who fade away when the going gets tough. And what a shame for his dear parents, to see him slacken off in the very year when he should be doubling his efforts, the year of his first public examination, the Intermediate Certificate. Lord God, how often have I told you, fellows, that the game isn't over till the final whistle blows? O'Driscoll, you slacker, a term down in 2B would do you the world of good. I call a spade a spade, O'Driscoll, and you're a waster. That's what you are. Sit down, fellow, you fool.'
Well, as somebody said once and it has been many times repeated, What would you expect from a pig only a grunt? Jake had an oratorical sort of grunt, and it's funny how oratory echoes in a person's head - I suppose that's what it's meant to do. But the upshot was that Jake's hard words had quite the opposite effect to my father's very similar beratings in primary school. Rather than shutting me into myself, they opened me out. What defeated Cosgrave brought out the rebel in me. What doesn't kill you cures you.
But on the other hand, who needs it? Jake was just a fact, unavoidable, and I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to have had someone kinder and more understanding as a maths teacher. Would we have all gone on to be rocket scientists? I doubt it. But I also doubt if anybody would expect us to be grateful to Jake for putting us in touch with the bastardly side of life, as if we should say 'Thank you for being such a bastard to us, because life is a bastard too, and we might never have been able to cope with it if we hadn't come up against you at an early age.'  If there's one good thing to be said about the maths teacher, it's that he definitely had the gift of the gab. Maybe he was another frustrated artist like my father, a frustrated writer.

From memoir in progress 'The Hungarian for Cheese' © Ciaran O'Driscoll 2010

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