History Lesson, by Joe Gorman: Writing Competition Winners
2015-09-15 12:01:43 -

The 19-year-old writer’s hometown of Strandhill, Co Sligo is the setting for this coming-of-age classroom tale



The bell thundered on the third floor of Summerhill College, cutting through the boisterous hurly-burly of break time in the all-boys school. The teachers patrolling with their coffee cups glanced at each other then prowled to the stairwell, hoping to catch the dregs of the staff room banter. Slowly but surely, the crowds around the lockers dissipated as crowds of boys filtered into classrooms, all neatly identical in blue jumpers and ties, grey trousers and shiny black shoes.


The school was L-shaped, with two long corridors on the third floor. Afternoon sunlight shone through the windows of the corridor above the lockers and bounced off the grey laminate flooring. The boys of 602 barely noticed this as they loitered around Reynolds’ doorway, mixing aimless chatter about girls and football with bitter complaints about the new school year, the load of homework and the impending pressure of exams. Ashraf stood furthest from the door, the perennial last man to enter, usually preceded by Dennis and James, his partners in crime. The trio was debating the various merits of drinking vodka rather than beer, with James arguing vehemently for the economic benefit:


“Way cheaper” – he declared stridently, then paused – “and there’s less to clean up, just a bottle” – as an ecological afterthought.


Ashraf was thoughtful for a moment, then: “What if we just got a litre the next time we go out? Split three ways, it’s cheap as chips when you think abou-”


He felt a dig in his ribs – Dennis’ elbow. “Reynolds,” he hissed.


A bearded, six-foot man with a thick brown beard and a tightly buzzed haircut emerged from the stairwell. He was encased in a purple V-neck jumper, jeans and trainers and loped towards the boys, a sheaf of essays and two DVD cases under his arm.


“Morning gentlemen,” he grinned, sliding the key into the lock and booting the door open. “Hope the weekend was good to ye!”


Eighteen adolescents shuffled in after him in various states of reluctance, shouldering their heavy bags and grumbling. Pavel, tall, blond and wearing glasses, kept his head down as he walked in, averting his gaze from the Auschwitz and Treblinka posters on the wall beside the door. Plonking himself down in his usual front-row seat, he watched the others walk in: Aaron, Ryan, Dave, Handal, Andrei, Liam, Ruairí… then finally what Reynolds dubbed the ‘Three Musketeers’, who swaggered in last and made a beeline for the back row. The history class was not quite full but remained a popular choice due to the charismatic bearded man now settling himself in his ‘throne’. Nine seats remained unoccupied. Reynolds punched the large button on his computer monitor then pored over the roll book. “Caoileann Burns? No… and it is… Friday.”


The chatter continued as the roll was called. Pavel swapped his Stalin essay for Liam’s Inter-War Britain one and near the windows, Jamie searched for his carefully hidden pencil case as gleeful onlookers sniggered. Down the back, the debate continued to rage.


“Listen Ash, it doesn’t bloody matter about the drink, you never get in anyways,” declared James triumphantly.


Ashraf went red. “Not my fault my brother isn’t a soft eejit that gives me his ID,” he said indignantly.


Dennis was more diplomatic. “In fairness, neither do I, except for the rare acts of god when I don’t get asked for one.”


“Alright gentlemen, can I get a bit of hush please,”, came the order. “Like last week, ye wont be needing your books so I’ll stick on that McCarthyism documentary in a minute” – he held the DVD case aloft and waved it enticingly – “but first I just want to chat to ye about something.”


There was now near-silence, save for the occasional cough. Reynolds leaned back in his chair and regarded his room of young charges. 


“Lookit lads, I thought I’d say this to ye while we’re still in September, seeing as you’re staring down the barrel of a Leaving Cert. It’s important stuff so listen up down there.” He glowered at the Musketeers. “I know what you’re going through gents, seeing as I enjoyed the Leaving so much that I did it a second time.” A burst of chuckles. “The slog is terrible lads, I know, but Jaysus, the reward is great. I remember when I was doing the Leaving Cert. God, I lived like a monk. The second time, mind you. The first time, I kept putting it off. When we came back in September, I said I’d start after the Halloween break. November came and it was after Christmas, then after Easter, and before I knew it lads, it was the night before the exam and I was burning the midnight oil; cramming two years information into one night…”


Ashraf got eerie flashbacks of the fifth year summer exams, before flicking his eyes back up to the front of the room.


“Anyways lads, that second year as I said I was living like a monk. I had myself installed up in the room, had the mother bringing up the dinner and everything. It’s a selfish existence lads, Leaving Cert year – you really feel as if it’s your time, and you need special treatment. Not that you’d need any excuse for that, Whelan.” He grinned and looked at the nonchalant figure in the third row, busily examining his fingernails.


“That said lads, you get a real sense of satisfaction from doing the work, y’know, ticking stuff off the list. You start off doing an auld history essay or a maths question and when you get it done and get it done right, you can stick it under the bed. That’s another thing off the list. A great feeling, let me tell ye, knowing that you really know something well.”


Pavel nodded silently, thinking of the folder full of essays tucked into his schoolbag and the neat checklist in the drawer of his desk at home.


“Chaps, teachers will talk about points and hard work and all that but really, all you can do is your best. There’s no feeling like getting the results and saying: ‘That A or that B or that C was the very best I could do.’ Really, you have to work hard for the next few months and yes… it is the worst year of your life, I can’t hold back on that front.” A collective, pantomime sigh shuddered around the room as Reynolds leaned forward, elbows propped on the desk as his eyes shone.


“But when all is said and done, the reward is well worth the wait, lads. College. The best days of your lives. I tell ye, when ye get that envelope in your hands, look at it and say: ‘That was the absolute best I could do,’ it’s a weight off your shoulders. You put the envelope in your pocket, and you go out the front door, down the slip into town with your mates. And you know what lads? It’s the Fleadh. You’ll be there on O’Connell Street, crowds milling around, you’ll be seeing all your friends, there’ll be great music and the sun will be shining. Well… maybe. It is Sligo.” The wide grin reappeared on his face, a wall of white in the mass of carefully trimmed hair.


“But lads, the best moment, let me tell ye… Sometime that night you’ll be out in a pub, with all the boys, no doubt.” Dennis nudged the two figures flanking him. “When ye are, just steal away for a second and go to the jacks, then you’ll take out that envelope, which has your best effort on it, and ye will smile, men. That belongs to you, that moment, those results. You will have worked hard, climbed the mountain, with nothing to worry about except the great adventure of college that’s ahead. Savour it, lads. It’s worth working for.”


Silence reigned in the room. The teacher leaned back once more and swivelled gently from side to side. As he watched, eighteen pairs of eyes stared back, some heads nodding, all paying complete attention.


“Don’t all clap at once, gents,” he said to a ripple of laughter.


“Raise your hand if you know what you want to do next year.” A handful of arms went up. His eyes fell on Ruairí Flynn in the back left corner.


“So, young Flynn, what lies ahead?”


“Sorry, sir?”


“College, I mean. The great adventure! What are your plans?”


Ruairí was quiet for a moment. “I don’t really know yet… I’m not really interested in many of the courses. I’d like to go to college though.”


“Sure, of course. Hey, if you’re not certain, there’s always Arts, it certainly did me no harm.”


“I’d dispute that,” muttered Ashraf, to loud guffaws from the back of the room.


Reynolds raised an eyebrow. “Oi there, smart man. What do you want to do?”


Ashraf was rarely short of a quick answer and this was no exception: “I’m going into tech like my dad – I’m good with computers and all that.”


Reynolds nodded approvingly. “And will you work for the Department like the old man?”


A shrug. “We’ll see, I guess.”


“Good man Ash.” Reynolds’ roving gaze continued as he quizzed the class with varying results. Andrei Kokorin liked the idea of engineering, Dave Ryan wanted to be a journalist and a singer in equal proportions, Ryan Delargy was set for the business world and Handal Hassan was following the family profession of medicine. The rest were unsure, undecided or utterly clueless.


Finally, his eyes fell on Pavel Borstein in the front row, three feet away. “What about you then, Pavel?”


Pavel coughed and clasped his hands. “Well sir, I’ve been thinking about ehh, becoming a secondary teacher.”


“Oh really? Dog eat dog world, my man,” Reynolds grinned: “What subjects?”


Pavel swallowed. “Umm, well I thought History and English would be my favourites.”


Reynolds beamed warmly. “Same as another great man, then.”


The class tittered at the mock self-grandiosement and Pavel breathed a sigh of relief.


“You’re a wise young man, Borstein. Don’t let any others tell you differently.”


Reynolds clapped his hands and scanned the room again, totally oblivious to the delighted expression on Pavel’s face. “Right, I think that’s all of ye. Gentlemen, you are a fine group of students, let me say that. You’re good historians, you all work hard when you need to and I look forward to each class. I reckon we’ll be alright if you lot end up running the country.” He paused. “Sorry for leaving it in a bit of a mess, by the way. Enjoy working till seventy.” The class groaned and there was some half-hearted booing.


The teacher, however, merely smirked. “At least you have me to spoon feed ye for the time being, lads. You think the Leaving Cert is hard? Try teaching!” He winked at Pavel, then spun round to face the computer and cracked an open hand down on the keyboard.


“So. Where were we? Ohh yes, the McCarthyism clip. I’ll throw it on so, get the lights there Jason, good man.”


As the boy stood up, the bell blasted again.


A rueful smile. “We’ll leave it there for today lads. Thanks for listening.”

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