Thursday 26 April 2018

Gavin Corbett: My Leaving Cert - only English held my attention

I found it impossible to concentrate in lessons. Everything receded as background noise as I gazed out my classroom window, in a trance, towards the Three Rock Mountain.

The only way I could learn was to teach myself at home. But the problem with self-schooling was that most of my school books were an incentive to dither. Biology made my brain hurt. Chemistry was toxic. Irish I had no grá for. French was like another language.

Only English could ever hold my attention – in and out of the classroom. I adored Shakespeare; the modern novels of Fitzgerald, Golding and Orwell; the poems of Kinsella, Kavanagh and Dickinson. I couldn't believe we were studying this stuff in school – it was like being allowed to listen to The Smiths or the Sex Pistols in class. We had a brilliant English teacher, Jim Byrne, who encouraged us to read outside the set texts. He made the study of literature a joy, because he loved his subject, and wasn't afraid to call it if he didn't like a writer. (He found O'Casey insufferably hokey, I seem to remember.)

Like all great English teachers, he was a punk at heart. We had another teacher (let's call him "Herr X") who used to make us stand in reverence for him and any teacher who entered his classroom. One time Herr X called in on our English class; we all, of course, sprang to our feet as a reflex. After he'd gone, Jim Byrne gave us a ticking off. "You don't stand up for people," he said. "You stand up to them." I like to think his attitude infused the rest of us, and that somehow he inspired the legendary call to arms – carved on the wooden main doors of the toilets, and meant as an attack on the headmaster, and on the educational murder machine in general – "F*** the Doc, F*** the system".

There was another great influence, besides Jim Byrne, on my approach to the English Leaving Cert course – namely a group of fellow students known as the Four As: Andrew, Alan, Alex and Aindrias. While the rest of us were into Napalm Death and My Bloody Valentine, these guys' rock stars were people like Wilde, Woolf and Sartre. (I also recall the Andrew of that group carrying around a volume by some woman called "Evelyn Waugh".) I got a lot of extra reading material off the Four As: wonderful essays on Shakespeare by Coleridge and other critics.

Apart from in English, I wondered where else I could pick up points. A bunch of us seized on Home Economics, thinking it would reward us merely for showing common sense. Practicals were to take place in the kitchen of a nearby girls' school (though wisely never at the same time as the girls were there). Teenage boys being teenage boys, someone naturally located a bin stuffed with soiled sanitary pads. These were laid out on a grille and cooked under a medium heat with some sunflower oil and a little table salt in sordid imitation of the frozen convenience foods of the day.

English Paper One was the first exam on the Wednesday morning. I hadn't seen my classmates for two weeks: two weeks that seemed to have taken a toll on everyone. A gaunt Stephen McCarthy turned up with an afro and very impressive five o'clock shadow, to mention one case study. English Paper One was a nice introduction to the Leaving Cert. It hadn't required any revision. The one line I had memorised and was determined to use – "a veritable orgy of apocalyptic annihilation", from a magazine review for a Sega Megadrive game – I managed to shoehorn into an essay on the worsening Yugoslav civil war.

Paper Two (was it on later that day? I certainly remember a World Cup qualifier between Ireland and Latvia being on later that day) went well, too. But the Leaving Cert slid downhill from then on. I'd left almost all my study till the night before exams, and needed to guzzle tanks of instant coffee just to keep going. It was a horrendous week-and-a-half. Two low points stick out: one was having to tell David Slevin and Albert Parr to take their conversation elsewhere because I was trying to cram the entire history curriculum in a toilet cubicle before that afternoon's exam. The other was forgetting to bring my scientific calculator into the exam hall, and not being allowed to go back out to retrieve it, and thus being forced to take the Pass rather than the Honours Maths paper.

The results came in anyhow, and I got an A1 in English, A2s in Biology and Pass Maths, and mediocre scores in everything else. It all turned out okay in the end: I became what I wanted to be, which was a writer, although it took many years of fretting and wondering about my place in the world before that happened. Funnily – or maybe not so funnily – enough, my school, Clonkeen College, has produced quite a few writers over the years. Colum McCann is a past pupil. The experimental novelist John Toomey was in my class. Another classmate, Julian Madigan, wrote a sensational memoir about the drug problem among his fellow pupils called 'The Agony of Ecstasy'. And Ciaran Collins, who won last year's Rooney Literature Prize, is a former teacher. It was a good education.

Gavin Corbett's latest novel, 'This Is the Way', won the prestigious 2013 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award


More from The Written Word, a three part supplement series free with the Irish Independent,  of interest both to Leaving Certificate students . . . but also anyone who enjoys the language.

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