“Well, before you start,” said old MacFadgen. “there are 2 lessons you have to learn. First of all you must learn how to sharpen your chisels; secondly you have to learn to understand the grain of a piece of wood.”
For weeks I struggled with those chisels and for weeks my little hands sought to get the better of the grain. Then one day he smiled and said, “Now you’ve mastered those skills all you have to do is practice and by doing so develop your own style.” Like the Roman generals of old he understood education as a process of bringing me out of myself, and then getting me to prove my skill.
For the next three years I whittled away to my heart’s content. Then I went away to a very conventional English boarding school. The curriculum was traditional and formal. There was no carpentry. I largely drifted through those years but kept on whittling away in my spare time. I passed all my exams except Latin. I was bored, but I think the teacher was even more bored because he spent all his time telling us how he won the war, single- handed, in his silly little tank in the north African desert!
I failed Latin not just once but three times. I was coming up to what would be the fourth and final attempt when the school’s odd-job man took me to one side and told me I had been selected to represent the UK at an international woodcarving exhibition. I was the best schoolboy wood carver in the country. My self-esteem shot to the top of the scale.
Two hours later it crashed when I realised that the headmaster would take no notice. This was neither a Rugby result, nor an Oxbridge scholarship, nor a debating trophy. By the standards of the school, carving didn’t matter. But it mattered enormously to me. In my 17-year-old mind I easily rationalised the situation: the reason I wasn’t passing Latin was because I wasn’t in charge. That afternoon I did something very unexpected, the kind of thing I guess teachers across Ireland hope won’t happen to them. I went to see my Latin teacher. “Because I have to pass Latin in 6 weeks time,” I announced with uncharacteristic confidence, “I’m not coming to any more of your lessons. I’m going to teach myself.”
No one had ever rocked the boat like that before! No member of staff knew what to do (maybe that was partly because I was taller than any of them!), but I knew that my head was on the block if I didn’t pass! I worked as I’d never worked before.
It’s amazing what you can squeeze into 6 weeks! Into my short-term memory I put all of Caesar’s Gallic Wars Books I and 2, significant sections of the Aeneid and all my conjugations and declensions. I passed that Latin exam with flying colours.
Six months later I’d forgotten the lot and became highly sceptical of exams……. But I still carve. And I learned an incredibly important lesson: learning and schooling are not necessarily synonymous. It was at that moment that I decided to become a schoolteacher. I was so excited about discovering my own expertise that I wanted to share this with other people.
On completing my degree at Trinity I applied to stay on for another year to do a Higher Diploma in Education. But when the course started, I wasn’t quite so sure. Teaching practice at Dublin High School, when it was still in Harcourt Street, was interesting enough but the lectures on educational theory seemed impossible to reconcile with my own learning experiences. Endless lectures on the work of the Russian psychologist, Ivan Pavlov, with his work on dogs’ salivation (and the theory of conditioned response that this led to) left me dismayed and I have to say, depressed. I almost decided to go off and find another career. I expressed my frustrations to Professor Crawford. “Stop,” he cried, as I prepared to flee the room. “It’s impatient people like you that education needs. We have a pretty rotten system for most young people and someone is going to have to do something about it. Educationalists don’t have the nerve to do it. It will need people who understand life as well as schools”.
I stopped in my tracks.
That the professor recognised that the system was faulty, intrigued me. With his experience he ought to know what was what. The fact that he thought I might do something about it both troubled and excited me. So I decided to give teaching a try. With the limited experience of teaching practice in Harcourt Street and having led three expeditions of teenagers to the Hebrides, I had the audacity to apply to teach geography at Manchester Grammar School.
It was a thrilling place in which to serve my apprenticeship. At the time MGS shared with Winchester the reputation of being the most academic school in England. Classrooms hummed with activity. At the end of the day numbers of youngsters would invariably stay behind just to talk – they, perched on the desktops, I lounging against the window. What might have started as a query about geography frequently led to questions of philosophy, politics, and religion. The syllabus was a guide, but in no sense was it carved in stone. To digress was not a sin. but an objective.
The longer I was at MGS, however, the more suspect I became of the way – quite unconsciously, I believe – a good school appropriated more and more of a youngster’s life. There was so much that could be done – school plays, debates, sporting fixtures, field trips, orchestra, clubs. The list was endless. The students, it seemed, went home simply to sleep.