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16 October 2014
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Fergal McGuckin
Fergal McGuckin

My name is Fergal McGuckin. I am a late thirty something teacher of Politics and History at Lagan College, Belfast. I am married with two sons, aged 9 ½ and 5 ½ . (The ‘half’ is terribly important, I’m told!) I have only recently started putting my semi-autobiographical ramblings to print and I am still not quite sure what has prompted me to do so. I have been told that I have some good stories to tell but I am not sure if I can write well enough to do them any justice.

Beating the System by Fergal McGuckin

I was educated in a very different environment from today’s corporal punishment free, politically correct, health and safety conscious, human rights protected world of specialist schools with child centred, revised curriculums. We were probably the last school generation where the oligarchy of teachers was assured, where teachers ruled their classroom like tyrannical overlords administering their own little fiefdoms. Most of the pupils were the mass peasantry, the great unwashed (literally, for some!). We were the down trodden proletariat of an austere Stalinist regime.

It was acceptable to be told that we were little toe-rags or useless, good for nothins’.  “You’re a bungalow boy, you’ve got nothin’ upstairs!”; “If you had brains you’d be dangerous!”; “The lights are on, but there’s nobody home!” One teacher would even take a genealogical view when questioning a pupils’ cerebral capacity; “Your Da was thick, your older brothers were thick and you take the bloody biscuit, son. Talk about it being in the genes!”

The last generation to be slapped, caned, kicked, cuffed and generally abused into submission; or at least that was the idea. You see, it didn’t really work as we’ve come to realise. Some became immune to it almost and many developed coping mechanisms for being slapped or caned on a regular basis.

There was a boy in my class who invented the River Dance before Michael Flatley was ever heard of. One slap of the master’s cane would have him ‘buck leppin’ about the room, legs kicking wildly in some vain hyper cardio-vascular attempt to mask the pain; an ultimately fruitless exercise, but one that provided a brief comic interlude for the rest of the boys. When Pat ‘Flatley’ Murphy was doing his thing someone would drum on a desk, bohran fashion, from the back of the room. This was usually accompanied by the classic, high pitched ceili yelp; “Yeo!” Even the master had to laugh. You see, quite often the administering of corporal punishment was turned into a form of entertainment; a show for the boys at the hapless victim’s expense.

At this time our teacher was Mr Crimble, a lofty, tweed suit wearing eccentric who projected the image of a public school educated, upper class ex-major. He was nothing of the sort, of course, despite the image being fastidiously fashioned, right down to the immaculately groomed handlebar moustache. In reality he was a sad, lonely forty something bachelor, frustrated and disappointed with his lot in life. He had been seduced originally by the apparent security of a teaching career but was inevitably left disappointed and unfulfilled because he knew he was infinitely better than that. His captive audience, the pupils, would bear the brunt of his simmering resentment, borne out of this personal and professional malaise.    

He summoned you to the front of the classroom when you were caught for some misdemeanour or other; like not listening while he dispenses “pearls of wisdom” or “talkin’ when you should be listenin’” or “actin’ the maggot” (the latter can cover a whole multitude of perceived ‘sins’, a one size fits all crime if you like). Or you could be caught engaging in something of a really heinous nature, like one wee lad, who had an overwhelming pathological need to pick his nose at every available opportunity. Bad enough, you may suppose, but he quite liked the taste of it as well. “Are you workin’ there tomorrow, boy?” the master would bellow at the top of his voice. “That’s a vile, disgusting habit you have, young Doherty and by God I’ll beat it outta ye!” Worse still would be to audibly break wind. Farting in the confines of the classroom was strictly the exclusive preserve and privilege of the teacher himself.
This particular teacher also had other very irritating habits of his own, like pulling the waste band of his trousers almost indecently above his belly button region. Even as an eleven year old, you know that is not a good look. After lunch he would often arch back in his seat, rubbing his stomach and periodically belch, not loudly, but more like an audible gush of air. “Excuse me boys, must be the broccoli repeating on me.” He also had a wholly inappropriately high pitched laugh for a man of his size; he was six foot three at least! He sounded like a hyena in its death throes! He was one of those people for whom you assumed laughter didn’t come easily or naturally.

Once at the front of the room the master would usher you towards his library book case; the free standing, fold out sort with the springy, wire retainers to prevent the books from falling out. Evidently, they were also useful for securely storing and displaying his impressive bamboo cane collection. Each cane had a paper name badge sellotaped on to the ‘offending’ end. Every year there was a new naming ceremony with a particular theme invoked. I recall the ‘knights of the round table’ year quite vividly, having had summary justice meted out to me via Sir Lancelot or Excalibur on a number of occasions.

The master would enter into his well worn, theatrical routine. “Select your weapon, boy!” he would ceremoniously announce. It had occurred to me that we were not getting a weapon, but he was!

Another lad had what seemed the perfect antidote to the sting of the cane; he had burnt his right hand as a young child. He fell into the fire, apparently, which was a kind of portent for one of the most luckless, hapless, unfortunate beings I have ever met. This guy got into more scrapes, broke more limbs and lost more teeth than your average movie stuntman with a passion for extreme sports on his day off. He even got struck by lightening on one occasion. I swear, if I ever see him boarding the same aircraft or ferry as me I’ll have to be tied into my seat, clutching every piece of emergency kit available.

He was equally luckless when it came to the administering of corporal punishment in school. He got caned more than any other boy in the class, probably in the school, probably in the entire history of the school! Now this would of course have been terrible for him but for his perfect antidote; the burn afflicted palm of his right hand. This had been the one mishap in his life that had produced unforeseen benefits, a silver lining if you like.

When summoned to the front of the room for the dispensing of summary justice, Kevin would always offer his right hand, which of course had no feeling in it on account of the old burns injury. It was a constant source of irritation and frustration to the teacher that Kevin never appeared unduly troubled by the whack of the cane. How could the teacher not notice that he had a right palm like a silver back gorilla?

Of course, inevitably, his one stroke of good fortune would run out. Every dog has his day and Kevin had well and truly had his. Having fallen foul of one or two class mates, he was ‘grassed up’, the anonymous note having been left for the master on his desk. It must have made the master’s term, never mind his day. The Master exuded all the sadistic glee of the archetypal pantomime villain when it came to Kev’s next punishable indiscretion, for which we predictably didn’t have to wait very long; “Oh, I think we’ll try the left today, Kevin! Oh, but I must insist! I must say, that feels much more comfortable for me on the left, a better swinging action there, I felt. What do you think, Kevin, eh? I think you were much more involved in the experience this time. Better all round, don’t you think, boys!” First time I ever saw Kevin crying, the poor sod! Mind you, he was laughing and ‘actin’ the maggot’ again five minutes later.

There was one time when a pupil irritated the master to such a degree that he actually locked him into a large wooden cupboard, I think it was an old wardrobe with shelving on one side. Of course, the poor lad threw a complete psycho  and began banging on the door and squealing wildly, forcing the master to relent and open the door whereupon the young lad rushed past screaming “I’m getting my granda and your dead meat!” His seventy five year old granda was hardly likely to have the master quaking in his boots and begging for mercy and forgiveness, I thought. However, old Mr Magee duly arrived at the door half an hour later and we were in for an absolute treat!

The master went out of the room to pacify the clearly enraged pensioner. We all clambered over desks to gain a vantage point over the top of the opaque lower windows separating us from the corridor outside. Mr Magee was a thin but very sprightly seventy five and about six foot tall at that. Following a brief argument, Mr Magee’s old weather beaten fists went up, Queensbury rules style, as he began to shimmy and duck and dive like Jack Dempsey in his prime, well, almost! The boys went crazy. “Hit him Mr Magee!” “Go on Joe, he’s a big jessie!” The class became a blood thirsty pack, salivating, frothing at the mouths and baying for the master’s blood. This was going to be payback. Salvation had arrived in the elderly form of ‘Smokin Joe’ Magee.

Suddenly, it happened, two unanswered rasping jabs from Mr Magee were followed up by a sweet uppercut to the chin. The master was reeling, clearly dazed, he staggered backwards, raising his hands to try and block the blows now raining upon him. “Go on the boy ye!” came the war cry from the classroom. This was our opportunity; no more would we play the down trodden and abused victims. We could rise up and overthrow this sadistic, domineering, vile monster. Vive la revolution!

The cavalry arrived just in time for Crimble in the form of the school principal. Our emboldened euphoria had lasted about five minutes, about the same length of time it took Kevin to get caned again after the master had re-entered the room, order had been restored and normal service had resumed. Our little Prague Spring was over. The revolution would have to wait, at least until after the maths homework had been corrected.  
Tiocfaidh ar la!

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