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David Butler, The Lesson

The Lesson

Written by: David Butler

Perhaps you need to have been a teacher to understand this story. Not the mechanics of it. Not the shape of the conflict, either – the generations locked in the age-old power-struggle. But the passions; the pressure-cooker intensity of the passions.

I’d been teaching in Enda’s for seven years. It’s not a bad school – by which I mean, it’s not a particularly bad school. There were classes you’d dread. Individuals you’d dread. Not just down from the council estates, either. More often than not, it was the parents giving little Jason or Jacinta the free-rein that turned them into such pups.

Enda’s is streamed. That’s the first thing you need to know about it. Not officially, of course. But everyone in the staff room knows it. The kids too, they’re not stupid. Naturally, there’s Pass and Honours. Not even the most bleeding-heart egalitarian can argue with that. But in a Community School like Enda’s, with five or six classes in every year, there’s plenty of scope for sneaky streaming.

Here’s another thing. Every class has its own personality. Once that becomes fixed, it’s fixed for good. But how that personality comes about, that’s the point. It’s no mere aggregate. Look back on your own schooldays. Certain individuals, certain cliques, are the collies amongst the sheep, driving the flock what way they will. You win those over, or you muzzle them. Because if you don’t, they’ve the power to make life hell.

Up until fifth-year I’d avoided Luke Palmer. I knew him by reputation. Knew of the wider family, too.His cousin had been some piece of work. A grade-one lout, twice suspended. ‘Known to the guards,’ as the saying goes.Though funny enough, not much taller than Luke. They were neither of them what you’d call physically imposing. But then, you don’t need muscles to be a bully. Just a surly single mindedness. And then there was Catriona Palmer. Single-mum of course.A minute woman, ferret-eyed and ruthless. Butter wouldn’t melt in little Luke’s mouth, so far as she was concerned. If his name came up at every parent-teacher meeting, it was institutional vindictiveness. She actually used that phrase.

He looked the part, too. He had the same ferrety eyes as his mother. Lifeless, lank hair he’d a habit of pushing his fingers through. Oily pallid skin with eruptions of acne across either cheek, though I suppose no worse than many at that age. A hint of down on his upper lip like a memory of something shameful; something shameful he was inordinately proud of. I had his measure alright.

Perhaps you need to have been a teacher not to subscribe to the view that all children are essentially good. Some are little shits. That’s all there is to it.

Tom Creegan had told me all about Luke Palmer. Creegan is as near to a friend as I had in Enda’s. Not a friend in the extra-mural sense. We never hung round together, after work. But he was the person I’d gravitate towards in the staff room. He was the one with whom I’d exchange wry observations. And he was the only damn one out of all of them who didn’t look at me as though I had two heads, afterwards.

Creegan is a quintessential English teacher. Impossible to imagine him in any other context.The dry irony.The preference for recherché words.The weary use of surnames.He even wears a sports-jacket with elbows patched, for God’s sake.Popular among the students. For playing such a recognisable type, I should imagine.

He’d been looking at Huckleberry Finn with the Transition Years. This was the year before my big run in with Mr Palmer.Huck Finn and The Butcher Boy. And a film, The Outsiders.Everyone was meant to put together some sort of a precis. Summary of the plot, that sort of thing. Now, when Creegan came into the staffroom immediately afterwards he was bristling. For five minutes he couldn’t speak. Stood at the coffee-machine, scarlet-faced and eyes like gobstoppers. What was it Palmer had done? He’d put up his hand, all innocent-eyed. Which was something he never did unless it was can I go to the toilet.


‘What’s the story with Nigger Jim, Sir? Is Nigger Jim meant to be a good guy? Are we supposed to like Nigger Jim, Sir?’ He wouldn’t let it go. Just kept repeating the word. Any formulation he could think of. With just that emphasis, each time.And of course Roche, the sidekick, sniggering away.Because what you have to understand, Enda’s is a mixed bag, ethnically. In that TY class you had Desirée Ezenwa and Nelson Nwakali with the lazy eye.

But just try call Luke Palmer out on intonation. Outraged innocence.

So that’s the sort of slippery customer I’d have to deal with. I wasn’t exactly relishing the prospect.

We’re halfway through the next academic year. After Christmas I’d be taking over a couple of Maths classes from a teacher out on maternity. Enda’s was that cash-strapped that instead of taking on a sub,our principal has decided to divvy up her classes amongst existing staff. And being the least senior Maths teacher, the bad-ass Maths streams would fall to my lot.

That in itself mightn’t have led to the clash. But Enda’s wasn’t the only entity in financial straits at the time. Seven years before, the very year I’d signed the contract in Enda’s, myself and Angela had taken out a mortgage. This was the era of the mad scramble to get on the housing ladder. Against Angela’s conservative instincts, I’d argued for moving our tracker to a fixed-rate. She was unconvinced, said the rate looked a bit steep. I drew up a table of projected repayments. ‘Whatever,’ she’d said.

Fast forward seven years. Ange is on a year’s sabbatical. Unpaid sabbatical. In the run up to Christmas we get a letter – it turns out the fixed interest rate is variable after all. Repayments double, pretty much, at the same time as our income is halved. We go a month behind. Two. The only thing for it is to arrange a face-to-face with the bank-manager. But I’m the one signed the bloody thing, so it’s up to yours truly to sort it out.Needless to say, the meeting with the bank does not go well.I’m not giving this as an extenuating circumstance. A justification for what happened. I’m setting it down to round out the picture. To give both parties their full weight. Because every crisis is a collision of two distinct realities.

For the first two months of the new term, Palmer and his sidekick have been waging that sort of low-intensity warfare that’s part and parcel of teaching the lower streams. The smirks, the whispering, the incessant white-noise of insolence.Every chair was dragged, every instruction misunderstood. By and large you put up with it. Because there were some who were learning and who wanted to learn. If you didn’t believe that, you wouldn’t last long in this game.

What was it pushed me over the edge that Monday? A Monday like any other, to all intents and purposes. Overcast. Slow. The clock ineluctably advancing toward the hour I’d have to endure 5-D.

Things hadn’t been good with Ange. Tight finances will do that. But that’s not it, either. Some days, you’re just close to snapping. A little push, that’s all it takes.

It wasn’t even Palmer that had the class off kilter. Maybe that’s what threw me. As I arrived,a textbook came skittering out the door. Maths book, the cover off.Property of one of the front-row girls, Aoife Madden, mousy thing, big glasses,who’snow scrambling shamefacedly to recover it.

‘Who threw that book?’

Nothing.Silence.Butter wouldn’t melt.

‘Who? Threw?That? Book?’ And I must’ve sounded like I meant business. Because Desirée Ezenwa stands up, flirtatious. ‘It was me, Sir.’ That has me out of sorts. Because there’s a look that Luke Palmer fires me, says, ‘You thought it was me, didn’t you?’ And I have to look away.

Nothing much happens. Nothing that doesn’t happen every other Monday of the year. Only today I’m in no mood for it. My heart is going. Warfarin, I imagine. The first time I turn from the whiteboard, he has his shoes up on the desk. Not for the first time I tell him to sit up properly. Not for the first time he does the bare minimum. Two minutes later he’s at the same lark again. Shoes provocatively butter flying. I’ve had enough, I slap them off.

Now, that’s a line crossed.

Everyone senses it. The air is charged.

I drawl, drolly, ‘You’re not in some saloon there, cowboy.’


He stands, sort of. If he stood straight, maybe I’d respect him. But he’s craven. Underhand.He mutters something toward his sidekick, something I don’t quite catch. Might have been ‘Fuck you, man’, though later Roche swears blind what he said was ‘Funny man.’ And there’s the trademark snigger, the sly eyes. And before I know what’s happened, I’ve lashed out. Open hand, right across the face.

There’s a gasp. A collective intake of breath.

I look to my palm, wonder why it’s smarting. He’s bent double, left hand beneath the lank hair. Other hand fingering the table. And there, to my horror, I see it. Small as a jellybean between his shaking fingers. Plastic, prosthesis-coloured. Also adisc on a braided wire. He snatches it up, turns from me eyes bubble-wrapped in hot tears. He shrinks from my touch as though it’s loathsome. Then he’s gone, loping, stumbling over bags.

Roche stares up at me, frog-mouth agape.

‘Go on. Go after him.’

By the next period it’s all over the school. I’ve my sixth-years. And you could hear a pin drop.

Angela knows the bones of what’s happened. The mechanics.The ignominy. I had to tell her. Sooner or later she was going to find out. When I’m home all day tomorrow.And the next day.But somehow, I’ve kept from her the heart of the matter.

I asked Tom Creegan, ‘Did you know Luke Palmer had a hearing-aid?’ He was the only one who wasn’t keeping an indiscreet distance.

‘Why, did you not?’ he countered, his open face altering the question to ‘How did you not?’ And that is the question.

To grow up on the estates with a hearing-aid, my God…

If the Principal was outraged, she managed to conceal it. As yet,she said, she’d only been able to leave a voice-mail on Catriona Palmer’s phone. No telling what the reaction would be, there.

I’d have to go home. There was no question about that. I’d have to consider myself suspended. ‘Suspended on full-pay, you understand.’ Word must have got to her of the precariousness of our finances.

I watched her lips move. Nothing was registering. Or if it was, it was as though I were reading subtitles. All I could see was that miniature, flesh-coloured implant, lying on the classroom desk. I found her staring at me. ‘We’ll have to give it time,’ she said.

‘Give it time?’

‘To blow over.’

I winced. Because, she hadn’t got it. Creegan, I think, did get it. But Ange won’t get it, of that I’m positive. Not ever. Neither will she forgive. You see, I’m not going back. Perhaps you need to be a teacher to understand. I can’t go back – not there, not anywhere. The mortgage will simply have to wait.

David Butler is a multi-award winning novelist, poet, short-story writer and playwright. The most recent of his three published novels, City of Dis (New Island) was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, 2015. His second poetry collection, All the Barbaric Glass, was published in 2017 by Doire Press. His 11 poem cycle ‘Blackrock Sequence’, a Per Cent Literary Arts Commission illustrated by his brother Jim, won the World Illustrators Award 2018 (books, professional section). Arlen House is to bring out his second short story collection, Fugitive, in 2020. Literary prizes include the Maria Edgeworth (twice), ITT/Red Line and Fish International Award for the short story; the Scottish Community Drama, Cork Arts Theatre and British Theatre Challenge awards; and the Féile Filíochta, Ted McNulty, Brendan Kennelly and Poetry Ireland/Trocaire awards for poetry. His radio play ‘Vigil’ was shortlisted for a ZeBBie 2018. David tutors regularly at the Irish Writers Centre.

Read in Serbian HERE.

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