When my family and I escaped from Belfast to the old coastguard Watch House in Groomsport in 1950 I had to change schools from Brackenber House on the Malone Road, Belfast to Garth House on the Maxwell Road in Bangor. These were both private schools as my middle-class parents considered government schools inappropriate. Both have been demolished.
As far as I was concerned Brackenber was a disaster. I could not spell and in those days spelling was one of the measures of intelligence. It was Brackenber that taught me I was dense. I would be punished again and again for not learning my spellings. I don’t know why they kept it up for it was obvious that continuous punishment was failing to teach me to spell. My judgement was that the teachers were not very bright.
Why did I have such an extraordinary difficulty in learning? I remember sitting through classes in a state of mental constipation, bored out of my mind apart from moments of suffocating embarrassment when asked a question I could not answer.
Brackenber had one very strange rule whereby we had to address all staff as sir – including the female teachers. I found this so ridiculous as to be embarrassing, particularly when we were outside school, and I developed a way of slurring ‘sir’ to a sound like ‘ss’. For instance, I would say, yes‘ss and no’ss. It was accepted as adequate.
I was eleven years of age when I started weekly boarding at Garth House. That was a marvellous experience because I had not mixed much with friends out of school hours and it was exciting to discover through dormitory talk at night that other boys had the same kind of curiosities and feelings as me. My first night in the dormitory was traumatic, however, for I was introduced to the mechanics of conception. A piece of information I was totally ignorant of. I remember the other boys were very careful in their explanations, but still it was a bomb shell.
“You mean you put your …?
“Inside the woman’s …?”
I was silent for some time until one of the boys asked if I was all right and brought me over a piece of chocolate as consolation. They all understood how deeply disturbed I felt because their own memories of learning this piece of bizarre information were still fresh in most of their minds. The conversation then turned to masturbation and one boy, more mature than the rest of us, claimed he had left a deposit of sperm in the bathroom for our inspection. I peered into the lavatory bowl but saw nothing. In the morning the concerns of the previous night were overtaken by my fear of how matron might interpret a chocolate stain on my sheet.
I was never particularly bad at school, but I think I operated in class as a constant low-level irritant. Our maths master at Garth House was called Mr Smith, or Smithie. He was a tall man with a short temper and a very deep voice. Near the end of one term he called my name.
“Mayne”. I was taken by surprise as I had been talking to the boy in the desk beside me.
“Yes’ss”. I replied in a high treble.
“Have I had you beaten this term?”
“Go to the headmaster and tell him to beat you”.
I was aware of a tense silence as I left the room.
I knocked on the headmaster’s door and entered upon his command. His name was Captain Hutton, an unassuming man that I rather liked.
I explained. “Mr Smith says you are to beat me, sir”.
“Why did Mr Smith say I should beat you, Mayne?”
“I don’t know sir”.
Captain Hutton swivelled in his swivel chair.
“Well”, he said eventually. “If Mr Smith said I should beat you I suppose I should beat you.”
And he beat me with three respectable strokes of his cane. I did not resent the beating because I had a vague feeling that it might be just, even if it was for no other reason than Mr Smith found me irritating.
I ended my schooling at St Columba’s College that clings to the beautiful hills of south Dublin, a situation that may have saved my sanity. It was an institution modelled on English public-school principles. It was then an all boys boarding school with a restricted number of Sunday exeats. House masters and prefects had authority to beat miscreants with fine canes. As usual this was supposed to instil obedience to school rules, but many of the school rules were absurd. For instance, Juniors were not allowed to walk with their hands in their trouser pockets. Another silly rule was that certain grass areas were not to be walked on. I was spotted absentmindedly resting my foot on the edge of a lawn while in deep conversation with a friend. For this crime I was given three strokes by a zealous head prefect. His name was Stewart. I believe he became a lecturer in bovine welfare at an American agricultural university where, perhaps ironically, cattle no longer eat grass.
Recreational reading was not encouraged at Columba’s. There was a Seniors’ library which was out of bounds to Juniors. I asked why there was no Junior library and was told Juniors didn’t need one. The Seniors’ library had an eclectic selection of books ranging from popular fiction to classical classics. I found a copy of Samuel Becketts’s Waiting for Godot which set me on a course of a lifetimes bewildering fascination with Beckett’s works.
I began my time at Columba’s in the bottom class which was for those pupils with low intellectual expectations. I presume the school needed the fees. The teachers were curious characters and observing them provided a lot of light relief. Several stand out. G.K. White taught Latin to the brighter boys. He startled me one fine January evening while I was walking through the Warden’s Garden by commenting on the pleasure the snow drops gave. It was a small piece of unexpected civility that I appreciated. There are several good stories about GK. One was when he was driven to such exasperation by a class that he clutched a broom handle shouting, “In the name of God, I will kill you all”. One student, risking his life for a good anecdote, called out, “Don’t fly off the handle, sir!” The boy’s name was Ian Steepe who became a talented hockey player representing Ireland from 1972 to 1981. He had the smallest legible handwriting that I have ever seen.
A new teacher arrived one term. He was a physically diminutive historian called Mr. Dibdin. Academically he taught me possibly the best lesson of my whole schooling. During a class I was roused by Dibdin shouting “Rubbish” and throwing the Irish history textbook out of the window. He stormed off to the library and returned with an armful of books by English historians that he then quoted from to prove how rubbish the Irish historian was. The nicety of the argument I forget, but what hit me so hard was that history could be contradicted, history was controversial, history was alive. It was a stunning revelation contrary to all previous teaching where historical facts were taught as set in stone.
And then there was my house master, Sandam Willis, PhD, Sub-Warden. A round little man with a large bottom. He was a strange man, a misogynist bachelor who lived in two rooms – a study beside Top Dorm, and a bedroom below under the stairs. He had a reputation for being a first-class mathematician well able for a university career so why he had chosen to be a teacher at Columba’s was a puzzle to all. He had his favourites and his unfavourites of which I was one of the latter. He treated those he disfavoured with indifference or with biting sarcasm which as a very shy boy I found difficult to cope with.
In my final term at Columba’s I gained access to a confidential report on me prepared by Willis. In it he had written, and I remember his exact words: “This boy should on no account attempt a university degree of any kind”. I like the ‘This boy’, the poor man had either forgotten who he was writing about or preferred not to mention the boy by name. So, at the end of eleven years of private education I was discharged as a piece of anonymous academic debris.
I last heard of Dr Willis as riding a bicycle down Killiney Hill into senility.
Post script: In my mid-forties I had the opportunity to go to Queen’ University in Belfast where, to my amazement, I archived a good degree in Archaeology. Following a couple more tests I discovered I had quite a high IQ but that I was also dyslexic which, when taken together, explains a lot.
(c) Denis Mayne