After three years at University and a year of teacher training, which included three extended stints of ‘teaching practice’ in a variety of schools, I finally faced a class of teenage boys alone, and literally shook with trepidation.
I was three months past my twenty-second birthday but looked no older than the majority of the lads in the desks before me. They had spent those three months and more, throwing pavings, rocks and petrol bombs at the British Army in their home estate of Ballymurphy and attended school, it seemed, only to rest and recharge their batteries for the night’s coming conflict.
I have recently learned from Ed Maloney’s excellent Secret History of the IRA that these confrontations were organised and orchestrated by the Ballymurphy IRA O/C, a young man sixteen months younger than me by the name of Gerry Adams. I taught some of his younger siblings. I tried to impart numeracy and literacy skills to his troops when they were off-duty!
Still the school had an excellent pedigree, Michael McLaverty and Seamus Heaney having recently taught there. And the ‘children’ were, in many respects, beautifully innocent though street-wise and sharp-witted. Not to say outspoken. In later years I kept in touch through the pages of the Belfast Telegraph. Sometimes the obituary column of the Irish News.
I genuinely loved them – the majority of them, at least.
In that first week, amazingly, a Schools Inspector (from the Department of Education) called! He was a particularly arrogant and brazen – not to say, fool-hearty – character, for in those troubled times, he marched in to my class unannounced and chose to plop himself down on a desk at the rear left, nearest the window, and from this vantage point, clearly intended to observe (i.e. assess) my teaching skills.
I rightly guessed who he was, but I was the only one.
His entry sparked a chorus of very audible whispers, which centred on speculation as to his possible identity and his reason for being there.
This, delivered with certitude.
‘Sir, are you in trouble with the ‘RA?’
Sir, are you IN the ‘RA ?’
‘He picked a bad place to sit!’
This from the class ‘wit’.
‘He’s in the sniper’s line of fire!’
He clearly did not want to display fear, but nevertheless he rose and pointedly reseated himself at the far side of the room, next to the said ‘wit’, all the time explaining that he was, in fact, an authorised Schools Inspector, and here to observe their teacher and not them.
‘Are you sure you’re not a tout?’ one boy asked.
The dreaded word had been spoken.
A frisson of malicious aggression spread across the room.
It took some time and effort to silence them and begin a lesson, which only fitfully and gradually did the majority of boys apply themselves to.
Eventually I thought I had them captive, when the ‘wit’ suddenly raised his hand and jigged up and down to indicate the urgency of his request.
I knew better than to pay any attention to him but he persisted, and eventually the Inspector pointedly drew my attention to the raised hand.
‘I think this boy wants to ask you a question!’
the Inspector pontificated, smiling condescendingly at the youth.
‘OK. Holden,’ I said tiredly, suspicious of what was coming.
The boy stood up, screwed up his nose in disgust and looked patronisingly down at the ‘big boy’ seated beside him.
‘Sir’, he announced, dramatically,
(there could be no doubt over just who he meant … )
‘SOMEBODY … FARTED !!!’
There followed five full minutes of total bedlam, with every boy in the class ostentatiously sniffing the air, then clutching his throat, coughing and spluttering, and – in a number of cases – collapsing helplessly to the floor in apparent agony.
Had I requested a simulation of death from gas bombs in the First World War trenches, I could not have expected a finer performance.
It was impossible to restore order.
In feigned disgust, the Inspector rose and, without a word left, casting not even a glance in my direction.
Strange to relate, I didn’t get another Inspector visit for the next five years.
Nor indeed, did any other teacher at St Thomas’.
I became a hero with the staff on that account!
… end …