The People I Grew Up With Were Afraid: All About School Culture

There is no such thing as an ordinary life. Every life is extraordinary.   Gabriel Byrne

Following a recent, four-hour flight delay that gifted me the time to populate my blog with several posts on assessment, I decided this weekend would be blog-free. Despite this, after happily, mindlessly surfing the net and watching some TV last night, I came across two items pertinent to learning that lead me to break that promise to myself. I have occasionally been asked where I find the ideas for blog posts and the truth is, they are everywhere. There are few aspects of life that are not about learning, and it is amazing how many take us back to our own school days. On this occasion, both inspirations take me back to Ireland and the significant culture of fear and defeat I heard described on Ireland’s Late Late Show last night by Hollywood actor and Dubliner, Gabriel Byrne.

The Late Late Show is the world’s longest-running chat show and something of an Irish institution, as is Byrne. To my mind, Gabriel Byrne is not your average “celebrity”. Apart from being a celebrated actor, he also contributes thoughtfully and intelligently to dialogue on modern culture, literature, and Ireland’s place in the world today. During this interview, he recalled an incident from his school days that resonated very much with me, as he reflected on a time when, “the culture was about putting you down.” Byrne recalled, satirically: “One of these stupid things on the board. How many men does it take to dig a hole if three men go past at quarter-past-twelve … or what’s the square root of the Bishop of Cork … and I didn’t know … and this guy [teacher] said to me … the only thing you’ll ever be any good for is the pick and shovel.”  

He could have been telling my own story and, quite likely, that of countless other young people of a certain generation, and not just in Ireland. I recall a very similar incident that has never left me. Having spent an evening puzzling frantically over a mathematical problem that made no sense to me and that I could find no point to, I resolved to ask my teacher at the end of the next class for some help in understanding the problem. Before that opportunity arose, however, she informed the class, (after I explained that I had spent more than two hours on the problem, probably more than anyone else in the room) that, “if Michael Crowley doesn’t fail the Leaving Certificate and end up collecting trash, I’ll give up teaching.” (She did use the word “trash”, a word alien to the Irish vernacular; her public putdown was not, however, in my experience, alien to Irish education at that time.)

Commenting on his own experience, Byrne said, “To say it in a derogatory way, that you’d never be any good at anything … I can say that a good deal of my life was about trying to prove people like him wrong.” The actor went on to suggest that proving people wrong is ultimately about recovering self-worth, not personal recognition, and that there is another aspect of culture today that is as poisonous and damaging as the culture of fear and defeat and this he sees emanating from the giving of awards, something that is still prevalent in schools today (and I have previously blogged about here):

I don’t put a big store on prizes. How can you say that this performance is better than that performance? That this person is better than that person? But we live in a culture that is about competition and it’s about “the best” … and if you’re not the best you’re some kind of a loser.

I think the implication that struck me in listening to this articulate assessment of the impact of school culture on young lives, is the realisation, yet again, that schools can – often in very unintentional ways – leave a lasting impact on impressionable lives in ways that are ultimately devastating. Byrne has gone on to win Emmy, Tony, Golden Globe and Grammy awards, but these prizes, he suggests, are largely meaningless in the context of humanity and decency. It is the self worth of people, shaped, often unwittingly, by the way they are treated in schools, that is so critical.

Visiting my hometown, many years after leaving school, I encountered my former mathematics teacher coming towards me on the Salmon Weir Bridge, framed by the imposing structure of Galway Cathedral in the background. Older now, she looked starkly less imposing, and as we made tentative eye contact I could tell that she recognised me. Ironically, as she hesitated beneath the interminable Galway rain, she asked, “And what ever became of you?” I told her politely that I had gone on to become a teacher and was now a school principal, still ultimately trying to learn from my own school experiences. She expressed genuine, sincere delight, and I immediately glimpsed, with some surprise, I admit, not a malicious, vindictive person, but a decent woman, a victim herself of the prevailing culture of a system and time. Still feeling the sting of that episode from 20 years earlier, however, I found myself saying, “Well, I didn’t fail the Leaving Certificate. Did you honour your promise to quit teaching?” As a bewildered look crossed her face, I could tell that she clearly had no memory of a moment in time that is still as fresh in my mind today as if it had happened just yesterday. Wishing me well with a sense of pride that seemed palpable, she moved on graciously, slowed and stooped by age now; as I stood there, gazing after her, sixteen again, feeling oddly guilty in the cold, unrelenting rain.

The Ireland that I grew up in was oftentimes a land of fear. It was a place in which honest, working class activities could be carelessly scorned and dismissed by the so-called establishment. Prior to watching Byrne on TV, earlier in the evening, I had surfed the web and came across the work of another teacher of mine, my second-year university tutor, Michael Gorman. Here was a brilliant person who instilled a passion for literature and exuded an innate respect for people that was profoundly admirable. I spent my first year in college believing, as forecast, that I was a loser, until I met Gorman and an English Professor (the legendary Hubert McDermott) who motivated me to eventually complete a doctorate in literature. This was, as is so often the case with young people, all about thoughtful people telling me I could do it. Gorman went on to write several excellent collections of poetry and at least one fine play that I recall with fondness (Developing Eye Contact was set in a traditional, Irish classroom). The audio podcast of one of his best pieces of work is stark and profound and captures the culture of my time, a time in which compliance and fear were commonplace and taken for granted. It is very true to say, as Gorman’s memorable poem conveys so well, that many of the people I grew up with were afraid.

I am not sure, really, what my conclusion is here, except to try to continue to have a greater understanding of the fact that the unwritten curriculum in schools – the culture of how we consciously and unconsciously interact with and encourage young people (especially when they need our assurance and understanding the most) – is by far the most critical thing we do in schools. Young people do not need to be humiliated in order to succeed, any more than they need awards.

Yeats, a Sligo man, like Gorman, quoted famously by Ken Robinson, implored a truth that is so vital to educators now and always: “tread softly because you tread on my dreams”.

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Gabriel Byrne appeared on The Late Late Show, RTE, broadcast April 24, 2015.

Waiting For The Sky to Fall, by Michael Gorman was published by Salmon Publishing and features in the collection, Voices and Poetry of Ireland, edited by Theo Dorgan

Photograph taken on the Isle of Arran, Scotland, at Machrie Moor.