Brother M had been an unpopular teacher from the moment he arrived to our school. Those of us in class 2b had the dubious privilege of being the first to welcome him, and, in what was a source of pride for us, within hours our nickname for him — Psycho — had spread like wildfire along the corridors. He did not look unlike Anthony Perkins; the trim, oiled-down hair, the narrow, unsmiling mouth, the thin skin, pulled to tautness over sharp cheekbones and along a high forehead. And, just like the Hollywood actor, he was small in stature and rake-thin. But it was not his appearance that had inspired our sobriquet.
As well as being stern and frostily aloof, Psycho was by far the most cynical and world-weary teacher we had come across in our school careers. His every word and gesture let it be known that he disapproved of us boys, thought us foolish and unintelligent, and that his futile efforts to instil in us the merest trace of learning and civilisation were being offered up to God as penance. It did not help his case that he had replaced a young, dynamic and popular teacher who was so liked by us that we had never got around to anointing him with a wry or vulgar nickname, he being known simply by his first name.
With the full assurance of adolescent wisdom, we surmised that our new teacher was well into his sixties. A handful of my nerdier and more neurotic classmates, worrying already about such distant horizons as honours physics (Psycho’s métier), the Leaving Cert and college entry points, fretted that Psycho would reach retirement age midway through senior cycle, requiring the difficult adjustment to a new teacher’s personality and pedagogic methods just as exams were breathing down their necks. The rest of us looked at his collar and soutane and feared for the worst: a Christian Brother of advanced age was a creature who inspired equal measures of terror and respect.
Brothers of Psycho’s age were the product of a system geared to the formation of zealous, unwavering, unyielding, disciplined (and disciplinarian), Irish nationalist Catholic soldier-teachers. These men showed zero tolerance to a long list of what us students regarded as great things: girls, pop music, soccer (English soccer in particular), films, television, dirty books (i.e. ones not written by Daniel Corkery, Walter Macken or Frank O’Connor), modern hair styles, fashion, computer games, music magazines et cetera, et cetera. Anything that was not to do with Catholicism, school or finding a decent job when you walked out through their gates for the last time at eighteen years of age was categorised as nonsense and eejitry. The only frivolities allowed were hurling, Gaelic football and traditional Irish music, and the only students ever shown a measure of respect by these old Christian Brothers were the heroes of the school teams or virtuoso fiddle players.
In many ways, brothers such as Psycho who had been ordained in the 1940s or 50s must have been in culture shock in our world of the early 1990s. How were men cloistered off from society by their celibacy and belonging to a holy order meant to process such modern phenomena as “Vogue”-era Madonna, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, the movies of David Lynch, Paul Gascoigne or the KLF? It would have been too much to expect our adolescent minds to make allowances for these men’s harshness and occasional cruelty towards us. We were just glad that they weren’t allowed to hit us any more. I still remember that winter morning in 1982, walking to school with my friends with the only topic of conversation being the banning of corporal punishment in Irish schools. “If they hit us, we can tell the police,” was a common observation among my peers. But our teachers still continued to hit us, perhaps not with the abandoned relish of earlier times (my uncle had a tooth knocked out by a Christian Brother’s efforts to underline the importance of punctuality). All of my friends received the odd slap or dig on our way up through primary and secondary school. Some more than others. And some teachers were more heavy-handed than others. I cannot remember the brother we had in fifth class raising a hand or bata to anyone. A lay teacher who taught us the following year, however, gave my desk mate a bloody nose. I was slapped in the face by a teacher who is now, peculiarly, a Facebook friend. I still feel a sense of outrage at the incident.
Unlike a brother we had christened “Tuck”, who after leading a Hail Mary upon entry into class would rampage up and down the rows of desks pucking and prodding, and pulling at boys’ locks, Psycho was not a hitter. He had no need to rely on physical violence to control his classroom. Emotional and psychological bullying worked just fine for him. He would marshal sarcasm in the same way the brothers who had taught my father deployed rod and leather. A verbal cutting down to size delivered in Psycho’s papery voice (never raised and slightly tinged with a northern accent) tore closer to the bone than one of Tuck’s rulers across the knuckles. In truth, the incidents where Psycho would single out a student and wither his self-esteem before his classmates were the highlights of the long, joyless, sterile minutes we spent in his physics lab — as long as that student didn’t happen to be you. He had these demolitions of character down to a fine art. After a couple of months under Psycho’s tutelage we had become as much connoisseurs of the rapier and cruzeta as veteran aficionados of bullfighting.
In between the scolding and threats of extra homework and reminding us how lazy and useless we were, he would introduce us to grand concepts such as magnetism or ionic bonds or osmosis. Standing rigid at his lectern or stretching to fill the farthest corner of the blackboard with his copperplate, he seemed unmoved by the ideas he was transmitting, and, in spite of teenage boys’ innate fascination for science, we were equally uninspired. He drained all enthusiasm for the subject from us, to the extent that attendance at class became all about avoiding his ire, while the point of homework became less about the challenge of beating a tricky physics or chemistry problem and more about staving off criticisms.
We did not even receive the compensation for being Psycho’s students of getting to perform experiments. Across the country and set down by the national curriculum for general science and the individual science subjects, a pair of classes were always scheduled back to back in order to provide time for experiments. Up until Psycho’s arrival, for many, double science, along with PE, had been one of the highlights of the week. Even the most unenthusiastic students of chemistry or biology or physics could look forward to a break from bookwork for two classes a week. Bunsen burners would be lit, glassware laid out, reagents distributed and plant or animal tissue arranged on bevelled glass dissection trays, and for two hours we were free from the chains that normally tied our bodies to our desks and our minds to attention to a teacher or textbook. But Psycho did not do experiments. And, thus, with his arrival, double science was transformed from a great pleasure to a terrible pain — and we had another reason to dislike him.
We speculated at length as to why Psycho did not do experiments with us. Did he think us that immature or untrustworthy (or downright bad) to deny us free reign with fire, chemicals and combustible materials? Or was he waiting, in true Dead Poets’ Society style, for that perfect moment when we would reach the required readiness to measure the rate of transpiration of Canadian pondweed or set up a Torricellian vacuum? Or was he somehow anti-experiment? Did he believe that two hours of his uniquely stimulating educational technique and razor-sharp insights into both science and the adolescent mind were superior in instilling in us the principles and nitty-gritties of science to actually doing science? Or was it the miserly, sadistic curmudgeon in him who delighted in our suffering by depriving us of one of the few happy points of the school week? Was Psycho keeping away from the test tubes out of meanness?
The deeper among us wondered if there a more adult reason.
“It’s about insurance,” one of us knowingly said. “Something happened in his last school. An accident. A fire or whatever. And now he’s not allowed to do experiments.”
“Maybe a kid died,” someone else piped up.
“Or poisonous gas.”
“Maybe it’s not about insurance. Maybe Psycho just can’t do experiments. The trauma of whatever happened. The boy dying. He can’t face labs now. Gets the shakes. Faints. Like that film about air traffic controllers.”
It is ironic that a man who was not known as a hitter, and who had never laid a finger on his students during his time with us came to leave the school because of an incident in which he raised a hand against a boy. What happened that day saw Psycho leave our school as unexpectedly as he had arrived. One moment he was a member of staff, one of our three science teachers and the only physics teacher, the next he was gone, not seen nor heard of nor mentioned (at least by his former colleagues in our company) ever again. It had a fitting symmetry that Psycho’s final class in the school was given to 2b.
It was a Wednesday afternoon in mid February, one of those still, grey, cold days when the coming of spring seems as far away as it had in November. The penultimate class of the day, with the school’s central heating running at its stuffiest full blast, us students were sluggish, eyelids heavy and circulatory systems directed towards the digestion of lunch rather than the carriage of oxygen to the cerebral cortex. The last thing we needed or desired was an hour of being harangued and worried by Psycho. There were certain classes one could doze and daydream through without incurring the teacher’s wrath, where the odd nod towards the blackboard or pretend taking of a note would trick the figure behind the lectern into thinking you were more awake than you appeared. But these bagatelles never worked with Psycho. His long years of experience had taught him to recognise the drooping eyelids, faraway looks and lack of fidgeting and bottom-shifting for what they were. So a sleepy class would be tormented by a hail of questions, demands to define this law or that and challenges to our logic and understanding of the topic under consideration. It was an interrogation in reverse — by the one of the many — and tougher than any conducted by Crockett and Tubbs on TV.
On that particular day, after half a class spent ruffling drowsy feathers, Psycho’s attention came to rest on a boy from whom he quickly extracted the information that he had not fully completed the previous day’s homework. The man was predictably outraged. After spending a good minute or two chiding him (and during which time the words “lazy”, “óinseach” and “good-for-nothing” were repeatedly employed) he commanded the boy to stand up and go to the blackboard.
“You’ll do the homework now, in front of all of your classmates, you lout,” said Psycho.
He handed the boy a stick of chalk and read out the first of the questions that had not been done. It was a problem based on calculating a material’s elasticity. My unfortunate classmate began an uncertain scratching of chalk on slate. As one of the tallest and broadest in our year he towered over Psycho, who stood angrily beside him at the blackboard. After a few lines of error-ridden reckonings, Psycho pulled the chalk out of the boy’s hand.
“You eejit,” he erupted. “You lazy, blackguard. The very boy who needs most to do his homework is too wicked and foolish to do it. Try the next question.”
The boy was once more given the stick of chalk and just enough time to demonstrate his ignorance of elasticity before Psycho interrupted his stuttering efforts: “Nonsense! Rubbish! Dross! Give me that, you pup!”
Psycho took the chalk and corrected and completed both problems. The boy stood watching without interest, awaiting the command to return to his seat. But Psycho was not finished with him.
“Now. You will tell me why you saw fit not to do the homework I gave you.”
The boy looked towards us plaintively, as if searching our faces for a reasonable excuse. After an awkward pause during which the opening and closing of his mouth signalled deep cogitation, he came up with a classic in the area of homework-dodging obfuscation.
“I forgot, sir,” he said. His voice was flat, absent-minded, veering towards pathetic — attempting to hit that sweet spot of credibility.
Psycho looked from the boy to us.
“Do you hear that?” we were asked. “He forgot. He forgot! He thinks I was born yesterday!”
The diminutive man returned his attention to the boy.
“Do you think I was born yesterday?”
Now. The correct answer to this question was a firm “no, sir” which would lack any trace of sarcasm or mocking, and convey the sense that not only is the student wholly certain that the master was not brought into this world the previous day, but also that the teacher’s time-earned wisdom is an unassailable surety. Our classmate’s answer did not meet these criteria.
“What do you think, sir?”
The boy may have been frazzled, or angry at being humiliated and called names, or had had enough of Psycho’s making an example of him. If his answer had been intended to call a halt to the show that was being made of him, then full marks to the boy — because bring an end to it it did.
Roaring “you cheeky devil” and displaying surprising speed and agility for a man who had been born at least sixty by three hundred and sixty-five days ago, the Christian Brother launched himself at the student. He gave a jump worthy of an inter-county Gaelic football player, and, with the reach of a champion boxer, overcame the difference in height between him and the boy to land a series of cuffs on his near-side temple and cheek. The assault on the boy may only have lasted five or ten seconds, but such was the shock among my classmates and I that these moments seemed artificially stretched in a slow motion sequence that could have come straight out of a Bruce Lee film. There may have been involuntary gasps from among us as the first of the blows rained down, but after these not a muscle was moved as we watched the action at the top of the class. The only sound to be heard was that of the hard flesh of Psycho’s hands against the fresh skin of the boy’s face — a damp, scuffling sound like that made by a large summertime moth flitting against a windowpane.
We will never know how long Psycho’s attack on our classmate would have continued if let fizzle out by itself. Would the five, ten, perhaps fifteen, seconds of frantic slapping that we witnessed have continued for another ten or fifteen seconds? Or another thirty? Or a minute? Would Psycho have stepped away from the boy, red-faced from the flurry of activity, ordered him back to his seat and taken up the lesson where he had left off as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred? Or would the violence be sheepishly brushed off: a mumbled half-apologetic witticism referencing his short temper; or maybe a warning to other absent-minded students to fully complete their homework? Would we have detected shame in Psycho’s demeanour for the rest of the class? Or the attempt to conceal shame? Or defiance?
We will never know, because Psycho’s beating of the boy was not brought voluntarily to a halt. Of all the boys in our class, Psycho picked the wrong one to hit. I would guess that most of my classmates would have taken the slapping handed out to them by Psycho without retaliation. Most would have taken the beating and returned to their seats displaying a mixture of humiliation and burning anger. Some would have been holding back tears, some openly crying, some their nostrils flaring and their body language telling us that they had barely managed to restrain themselves from returning Psycho’s blows with interest. But this boy did hit back. Or rather, push back.
That the boy was red-haired can mean nothing or everything, depending on how credible you find the myth regarding red-haired people. But this boy did have a temper. He was one of those who had never been bullied or picked on: those who drew pleasure from teasing and tormenting others had always left this boy alone. He would explode, it was known, if pushed far enough. And he would not relent. Mess with him and you had a fight to the death on your hands.
Thus, ten or perhaps fifteen seconds into Psycho’s assault, the boy had decided that he had had enough. If Psycho’s setting to the boy had astonished the class, then the boy’s reaction flabbergasted us. He swept a strong, long arm across Psycho’s reaching forearms, caught both of the small man’s thin wrists in his hands and pushed.
“Get the fuck off me,” was what we heard as Psycho fell backwards towards his desk in a black blur of swishing soutane. There was a clatter: his backside hitting the desk’s front panel. Then, he slid to the ground. For another one of those time-through-treacle moments the class was treated to the sight of our tormentor reduced to the pathetic likeness of the winos we would see up town on dole day if we strayed from the main streets into the alleys; as well as having the appearance of using the desk as a support to keep him upright, Psycho wore the same expression of bleary hopelessness as those men who poured bottle after cheap bottle of wine down their throats. There was also something comical about the scene. Psycho’s short legs peeped out from under his soutane with strange immodesty, his hair had become ruffled during the tussle and his glasses hung crookedly. No one laughed though. No one moved. No one even dared to breath.
After what seemed like an age it was Psycho who moved first. After pulling himself up, he ordered the boy to the principal’s office.
“Tell him what you did, you blackguard,” he said to the boy bitterly.
The boy, feeling, I imagine, a mixture of exhilaration and shame at his actions, left the room without a word or a glance back at his friends. Before the door had shut behind him, Psycho was continuing the lesson where he had left off, and for the remainder of the class, teacher and students entered into a conspiracy of silence. We ploughed into elastic points, newtons, Hooke’s Law and acceleration due to gravity, pretending that we had not seen the brother who was now strafing the class with questions splayed on the ground through the actions of a student who was fending off a beating. But while we may have raised our hands to provide an answer in kg per metre per second squared, and while we may have copied notes diligently into workbooks, our minds were on the drama we had just witnessed.
Would our classmate be expelled? we wondered.
Would he ever again sit among us through double science or freeze alongside us on frosty Monday mornings when the PE teacher took us out to the playing fields? Or would he merely be suspended? A week? Two weeks? Or would they go easy on the boy? Would a letter of apology to Psycho and a mea culpa before teacher and classmates suffice to keep the boy in the school?
Where none of our speculations roamed concerned the possible consequences to Psycho himself of his own actions. It was, in our experience of schooling, simply beyond the bounds of all likelihood that a teacher would be punished for hitting a student. While we had never seen so vicious and vigorous a beating handed out as that by Psycho, it was by no means unusual to see a teacher hit or poke or pummel a student. Down through the years not a single teacher had ever got into trouble for this, though. A code of silence concealed this illegal use of corporal punishment: while us students spoke of this beating or that teacher amongst ourselves, word of it never trickled upwards to parents or other teachers. We had no reason to believe that this omerta would be broken on this occasion or that Psycho would face any sort of reprimand for his actions.
It was all the more surprising, then, that the next day our red-haired classmate turned up for first class as if nothing had happened the day before. He was instantly surrounded by a gaggle of the curious and baffled.
“Why aren’t you suspended?”
“What’s going on?”
“What did the principal say?”
“The principal said,” the boy told us, “that Psycho was wrong to have hit me and that everything is grand and no more will be said about it.”
This was unprecedented. The principal giving the right to a student above a teacher — and a brother to boot. We were in new territory here. We asked the boy about whether he thought anything would be done about Psycho.
“The principal called him an eejit. He used that word — eejit.”
It was during morning break that wild rumours began to spread around a school which was already abuzz with stories of what had happened in second science the previous afternoon. Psycho had not taken his physics classes that morning. The principal had been waiting for the fifth years as they filed into the lab, and without further elaboration had told them that Psycho was no longer their teacher and that a replacement would be found immediately. They could use the class to quietly study.
We had confirmation of the rumour ourselves after lunch as we quietly studied under the principal’s watch.
We wondered what had become of Psycho. Had he been packed off to another Christian Brothers’ school at the far end of the country? Or been forced to retire and sent to one of those homes for geriatric brothers that we had heard of? Or was he in the monastery under a type of house arrest until they worked out what to do with him?
Even for months after the incident there were students who swore that they had caught glimpses of Psycho behind the monastery’s net curtains. Or we would hear that so-and-so had passed by the school on Saturday morning and had seen a small figure in a cassock moving about the physics lab. Or Psycho had been seen at an early morning mass in the Poor Clares’ by a second cousin’s great aunt next-door neighbour. The truth was that none of us ever saw Psycho again. The wisdom of years tells me that the old brother was most likely moved out of town as quickly as possible. He may have been forced to go on holiday; perhaps to one of the order’s outposts in Britain. And then, a new position would have been found for him beginning at the start of the next school year.
Whenever this episode comes to mind I can never avoid feeling sorry for Psycho. I now understand that he must have been a very unhappy, unfulfilled and lonely man. He clearly derived little joy from teaching and had no love for his students. His life must have been suffocating in its sterility, parched of all those things that make it worth living: friendship, laughter, hope, humour, to name but a few. His loss of control in front of his students must have been a stinging humiliation. And his furtive packing off to a new school must have been an extra source of burning shame. He may have ended his days feeling himself to be something of a black sheep among his fellow brothers — a man who was shifted from a school under a cloud of controversy and secrecy.
As for our red-haired friend: his stock soared after the incident and remained high for the rest of our secondary school careers. As we moved up through the ranks, you could see fresh-faced first years nudging one another as he passed by and you knew what they were thinking: there’s the boy who got the brother sacked.