The following is a guest post I did for a friend of mine who is a primary school teacher. Thinking about that as I prepared to write the blog post, set me thinking about my schooldays. Now before you hit the ‘Close Browser’ button, I’m not going to go off on a whole Angela’s Ashes rant about the Christian brothers, corporal punishment and walking to school barefoot in the snow. (I couldn’t if I wanted to. I went to school in the 80s. We had shoes.) But there is one incident that has always stuck in my mind which, I think, illustrates the difference between teachers who want to engage and teachers who just teach.
It was the summer holidays. In September, I would be going into Third Year in Secondary School and starting to study for my Inter Cert, as it was known at the time. My sister was a few years older than me and she’d already done hers. The book they had studied for English was Wuthering Heights. I loved English. I loved reading and writing. In fact, I loved reading so much that I decided that summer that I was going to read Wuthering Heights in advance of going back to school. Yes, I’ll say that again. I was going to read a school book IN ADVANCE of going back to school. On my summer holidays. That’s how much I loved reading.
So, I picked up Wuthering Heights, read the first line – “1801 – I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with” – and was hooked. I’d read a lot of the classics before then but mostly in abridged adaptations. This was the first “proper” classic I’d ever read and I loved it. I loved the brooding Heathcliff, the spirited Catherine, and Bronte’s descriptions of the ragged moors. I couldn’t wait to get back to school and start studying it.
So, in September at our first English class, our teacher started to talk about some of the books we’d be studying for the Inter Cert.
“What novel will we be doing?” someone asked.
“The Greatest of These,” he said.
The Greatest of These? Had I misheard him? What about Wuthering Heights?
“What about Wuthering Heights?” I asked him. His answer has stuck with me to this day.
“There’s enough misery and suffering in the world already without reading about it,” he said.
I didn’t answer him. If it was “me now” sitting there, I probably would have said, “Isn’t that the whole point of fiction? ‘To hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature’?” (gaining extra brownie points for quoting Shakespeare). But I didn’t. And so, The Greatest of These it was. Now, we spent a year reading this book and all I can tell you about it is it was set in a small Irish village and there was a priest. That’s it. I could probably tell you every major plot point that happened in the Judge Dredd comic strip that year, but that book? Alas, no.
I hadn’t thought about the book for years, but when I started to write this piece, I goggled it. It turns out it was written by Francis McManus (the RTÉ Francis MacManus Short Story prize is named after him). Wikipedia calls The Greatest of These one of his “major works”. Now, Francis McManus may be a great writer and The Greatest of These may actually be a great book, but I’ll never find out because that teacher gave me the same kind of pathological hatred for the book that the Irish book Peig inspired in so many people of my generation. And, I didn’t come here to bury that particular teacher, either. He was a nice man and probably loved that book. But, as nice as he was, as I said in the beginning, he was a teacher who just taught his students, as opposed to a teacher who actually wanted to engage them.
And I still love Wuthering Heights.
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