THE SCHOLARSHIP CLASS
"You're an ignoramus," Corco bellows. His voice erupts from his throat in an angry volcano of spite. His spittle sprays the room with venom and unrestrained fury. His anger clatters off the blackboard, crashes around the walls and reverberates throughout the classroom. It scatters pure menace in its wake.
He turns his back on the class and eyeballs the framed photograph on the wall beside the blackboard. The picture was taken last year, when the powers-that-be decided that Corco was the best primary school teacher in Ireland and gave him the Teacher of the Year Award. The photo shows President Eamon De Valera and Corco in Aras an Uachtarain. Dev is smiling and shaking Corco's hand and congratulating him for his great accomplishments.
The real-life Corco faces the picture, puts his hands on his hips and takes a deep breath. As he inhales, his upper body swells and bulges and his shoulders quiver. He takes a hanky out of his pocket and wipes the sweat off his forehead. This is a familiar ritual. He’s composing himself. Sorting himself out.
The boys in the class take the opportunity to breathe. Then Corco turns to face us again. His face is dark red with subsiding rage and the pulse in the vein in his temple beside his right eye throbs erratically. At the zenith of his anger that vein bounces and jumps against his skin so energetically that his head often looks like it's ready to explode. He glares at Michael Fagan.
“What are you, Mister Fagan?"
"An ignoramus, Sir."
Corco waves a hand at the picture. "What do you think our President would say if confronted with such appalling, willful ignorance?"
"I dunno, Sir."
"He'd say 'God help poor old Ireland.' What would he say?"
“God help poor old Ireland, Sir."
Corco nods grimly. "I'll give you one last chance. What's the capital of Canada?"
Fagan stands in the aisle beside his desk. All alone. His demeanour emanates pure misery. He hangs his dejected, ignorant head. He’s crying quietly in desolate, jerky, forlorn sniffles. His nose runs and little green droplets of snot hang from his nostrils. The droplets stretch, quiver and break. They splash softly onto the wooden floor. More of them bubble out of Fagan’s twitching nose. Corco snorts with impatience. "Fagan?"
Fagan surrenders. "I dunno, Sir."
"Come up here, boy."
Fagan does as he’s told and makes his woebegone way to the top of the class. His shirt is hanging out at the back and his shoulders are shaking with fear. An elastic snot dangles out of his left nostril. Corco takes his leather out of his trousers pocket. He calls the leather the ‘Great Leveler’. It’s a block of solid leather that measures a foot long and half an inch thick. It’s a weapon. Corco flexes it. Fagan winces and the snot jumps. Corco ignores the wince and the snot. He rolls his false teeth around in his mouth with his tongue; this is a habit he indulges when he's preparing to biff someone. "Put out your hand."
Fagan knows the drill only too well. Silent tears run down his face. The snot gets longer. He raises a shaking right arm aloft, palm upward, and bites his lower lip. Corco strikes. "The capital of Canada is Ottawa."
The leather scorches through the air and lands with a solid smack on the palm of Michael Fagan's hand. The tip of the leather strikes that particularly sensitive area where the hand meets the wrist. Corco never misses. I wince. Peter Fagan yelps. His head jerks back and the snot goes flying. It lands on the wall just below the blackboard; it sticks there for a moment and then it starts to crawl down the wall. Fagan dances a frantic little jig and waves his stricken hand in the air.
"What is it?" Corco hisses.
Fagan puts his hand back out.
"What is it?"
The leather scorches and smacks. Fagan howls. "Ottawa, Sir."
And the leather scorches and smacks. And again. And again. Six of the best. Corco's face is the colour of beetroot and he’s running out of breath. He gasps for air. He wheezes. He sweats buckets. His glasses have slipped down to the end of his nose.
Fagan is bawling. The palm and wrist of his slapped hand are so vividly scarlet that they shine; you'd think that the flesh inside the skin is on fire. He tucks the hand under his left armpit and hunches his back, all the better to absorb the pain.
Corco shoves his glasses back up his nose. "Sit down," he commands.
Sobbing and sniffling, Fagan shuffles ignobly back to his desk. I look at the clock above the blackboard -- it’s five to three, early yet for us. We’re normally kept in until five o'clock. We’re the scholarship class. Dublin Corporation gives scholarships for secondary school to the brainiest boys and girls in the country. A scholarship is worth forty pounds a year for five years. This is a lot of money. You have to pass an exam to get it and we sit the exam in three weeks.
The old familiar fist of fear tightens in my gut. Geography is my worst subject and we’re right in the middle of it. Corco's predatory eyes circle the room. I keep my head down and hold my breath.
"Canavan," Corco calls.
Colm Canavan stands up. He radiates confidence. He’s cool as a cucumber in a room full of petrified spirits. Canavan is a swot and he never gets anything wrong. I can't remember him ever being biffed. He’s an uppity bastard.
"The capital of Denmark?" Corco demands.
Canavan sits down. His face is one massive smirk.
I put my head down again.
"Humphrey," Corco calls.
A close call. Jimmy Humphrey sits beside me. He stands up. He stands tall and erect, with his chest out and his chin up, like a soldier at attention. As straight as his back is, though, there’s an impertinent slouch implicit in him. There’s something about Jimmy Humphrey that you can't quite put your finger on; it’s a nebulous quality that seems to inevitably provoke resentment in adults -- especially Corco, who hates Jimmy's guts with a passion. The feeling is mutual.
I never think about not liking Corco. He’s the teacher -- I’m simply afraid of him. But Jimmy Humphrey actually dislikes him and is candidly up-front about it. Jimmy is tough as nails and doesn’t know the meaning of the word fear. Now he stands in the aisle beside his desk and he waits for a question. He looks Corco right in the eye. Like an equal. Corco scowls back, breathes deeply and rolls his teeth.
"The capital of South Africa?"
Jimmy rubs his chin with a finger and thumb and scratches his head thoughtfully. I marvel at the brazen cheek of him. When Corco asks one of the rest of us a question we inevitably freeze and turn into statues. But Jimmy Humphrey is the picture of nonchalance. You'd think Corco had just asked him, man to man like, what are the chances of landing a man on Mars, rather than interrogate him about the capital of South Africa. You either know what the capital of South Africa is or you don't; but here’s Jimmy Humphrey, rubbing his chin and scratching his head. Thinking about it.
Outside, the bell rings. It’s three o'clock and school is out. Beyond our classroom the corridors fill with the jubilant din of hundreds of liberated boys. Inside, we close our ears to the noise. We’re not going anywhere. We’re the cream of the crop.
The tension mounts. Jimmy scratches his head and rubs his chin. Corco waits. But not for long. "Mister Humphrey?"
Jimmy looks at the ceiling, furrows his brow and thinks for another couple of seconds. Then he shakes his head. "I can't remember, Sir."
Corco doesn’t say a word. He flexes the leather and points it at the floor in front of him. Jimmy walks up to the front of the class and sticks his hand out. Corco heaves. The leather whistles through the air and whacks against Jimmy's hand. Jimmy's arm is as steady as a rock. He doesn't move a muscle. Doesn't blink. His gaze is locked on a spot on the blackboard behind Corco's head. The only indication that he's feeling any pain is a faint red flush high on each cheek. He takes the six of them like that. When Corco stops and waves him away, Jimmy turns and walks back to his desk with his chin up and both his hands hanging loosely by his thighs.
With all his exertions and contortions, Corco's shirt has come undone and the tail of it is hanging out over his trousers. He tucks it back in.
As Jimmy sits down, he glances over at me. He grins. "Pretoria," he whispers.
I survive the day. Corco questions me about the primary industry of Sheffield. Steel. Easy.
I walk home with Hogan and Hickey. We in the scholarship class keep more or less to ourselves. We don't have time for much of anything but schoolwork and anyway the boys in the other classes look down on us as mammy's boys and swots. But their derision is tempered with sympathy for the ritual slaughter that they know is dished out daily by Corco.
We review the doings of the day.
"Corco was in a lousy mood."
"I heard Miss Buckley gave him the elbow."
Miss Buckley is Corco's fiancée. She teaches in the girls' school.
"We're in for it, so."
I tell them about Jimmy Humphrey and Pretoria.
"He has a neck like a jockey's bollix."
"He's mad, that's what he is."
"Why would he do that?"
"Probably because his da is an atheist."
"What's an atheist?"
"Atheists don't believe in God."
"That's a sin."
"How do you know Mister Humphrey is an atheist?"
"I heard my parents talking. My ma said Father Mackey called around to the Humphreys 'cos they weren't putting any money in the envelope for the church collection. Mister Humphrey told him to feck off."
"No wonder Jimmy is a madman. It runs in the family."
I get home at five. I do my homework. I eat my dinner. I work on my revision for three hours. Then my ma gives me a hug and tells me to go to bed. "Only another three weeks and it will be all over, son."
I go to bed and I fall asleep revising the 13-times tables in my head.
In the morning I have Cornflakes for breakfast. I eat them. Then I go out the back and I puke them up. Then I go to school. On my way I pray fervently for Corco to do Geography first so I can get it over with. Instead he leaves it for last, as usual. I spend the day with that relentless fist of fear clenched mercilessly in my belly.
"Joseph Bartishell," Corco booms.
I stand up. My knees are shaking.
We’re doing Ireland. It’s a quarter past three and all the other classes are gone home. Corco's jacket is off, his tie is askew and his shirt collar is open. Huge, damp patches of sweat are spreading out under each of his armpits. He stands in front of the map of Ireland which he has rolled down over the blackboard. He jabs his ruler at a black spot that signifies a town on the west coast. Relief gushes through my veins. Corco has managed to deftly cover the name of the town with the ruler but I know what it is. I revised it last night.
"What town is this?"
Some of the other boys giggle. Corco looks perplexed. "I beg your pardon?"
I begin to doubt myself. My skin tightens with trepidation. Warily, I repeat my answer.
"Spell it," Corco says.
I spell it.
"Say it again," he says.
I say it again. I pronounce it Baleena. I have only seen the word on the map and in my geography book; I’ve never heard the pronunciation. Corco chuckles and the class laughs.
"Colm Canavan," Corco calls.
Canavan is up like a light. "Yessir?"
Corco winks at him. He taps the name of the town on the map with his ruler. "Tell Mr. Bartishell how to pronounce this word."
"Correct. Sit down."
"Yessir." Canavan sits.
"Mr. Bartishell," says Corco. "Pronounce it." He’s walking down the aisle towards me. I keep an eye on the hand with the ruler in it. I’m ready to duck. The ruler is one of the long, heavy, wooden ones. Sometimes he lashes out with it and smacks your ear with the edge. It hurts.
Corco nods. "Good. Sit down, boy."
I sit. In my head, I say a quick prayer of thanks. Corco walks back up the aisle, stands at his desk and puts the ruler down. He picks up a stapler and fiddles with it absent-mindedly.
"Michael Fagan," he calls.
Fagan stands up. He’s chewing feverishly on his lower lip and his legs are quivering. He has a big wart on each knee. Once I put a drawing pin on his seat for him to sit down on but he kneeled on the seat instead and the drawing pin went right into a wart. Fagan didn't feel it. He walked around all afternoon with the pin stuck in the wart.
"What's the population of Belfast?" says Corco.
Fagan closes his eyes as if to pray for divine intervention.
Corco rolls his false teeth around in his mouth. "Mr. Fagan?"
Fagan starts crying.
Corco shouts. "Mr. Fagan?"
Fagan opens his eyes. The tears run down his cheeks.
Corco's face is scarlet. "What's the population of Belfast?"
Fagan's voice is a trembling whisper. "I dunno, Sir."
"Why don't you know?"
"I dunno, Sir."
"Did you do your revision?"
The blood pumps faster through the vein in Corco's temple. "Answer me, boy. Did you do your revision?"
Beside me, Jimmy Humphrey puts up his hand. Corco ignores him. "Why not?" he says to Fagan.
Fagan sniffles again.
"Answer me, boy."
"I was sick, Sir."
Corco's face is purple. His eyes bulge. His veins pop. He looks like he's going to explode. He sighs. He mutters. He groans. He grunts. Then he throws the stapler. He throws it full force.
The next few seconds are like a dream; everything goes in slow motion. Corco grunts. The stapler whirls through the air. Fagan screams and ducks. The stapler crashes into the light shade overhead. The bulb and shade shatter and bits of dusty glass splatter and shower all over the room. The stapler crashes against the wall behind us and lands with a thud on the floor.
The classroom smells like shite. It's Michael Fagan. There’s watery shite all down his leg.
Jimmy Humphrey stands up and calmly walks to the back of the class. He bends down and picks up the stapler. He stands up straight, turns and faces the top of the class. He throws the stapler at Corco. Corco ducks. The stapler slams into the map of Ireland. It hits Lough Derg.
Nobody moves. Mr. Murphy, the headmaster, comes running into the room.
We get sent home early. At half past three.
Next morning I have a boiled egg and toast for breakfast. I eat them. Then I go out the back and I puke them up. I can't stop puking, even when there's nothing left inside my belly. I puke so much that my ma keeps me home from school for three days. My da goes in to talk to Corco.
On the morning when I go back there’s no trace of Michael Fagan. Nobody knows what has become of him. There's no sign of Jimmy Humphrey either -- he’s been moved into Mr. White's class.
When Corco sees me he picks me up and puts me in his lap. He plays with me. Tickles me. I don't like it. It feels funny.
He doesn't biff any of us again.
I get the scholarship.