Storm in a classroom
This time of year William Shakespeare looms large in the minds of many a youngster thanks to the dreaded state exams which are in full flight at the moment (and the best of luck to all of you are sitting, or rather suffering, them)
I myself can take or leave Will Shakespeare but I do have a soft spot for The Tempest, a play I studied for my Inter Cert, now the Junior Cert, more years ago than I care to remember and which was made into a major motion picture in 2010, starring Helen Mirren and Russell Brand.
The soft spot I have for The Tempest, comes from the soft spot my secondary school, English teacher, a Brother Brett, had for the play. Except it wasn’t so much the play that Brother Brett had a soft spot for – it was my actual copy of it, my text book.
The standard edition that most of us Inter Cert pupils had of the prescribed Shakespearean play was a synthetic, shiny covered, mass-produced publication.
Brother Brett despised the edition, abhorred it actually. Instead he took a shine to my tiny Collins “Mermaid” edition with its moss-green, matt cover which was definitely the worse-for-wear and which I had unearthed at home. How exactly this copy of The Tempest came to be in our house, I have no idea.
For sure we didn’t have a library and we weren’t exactly a literary family, though in fairness to my father, he loved reading: westerns and detective novels mostly and he also had a passion for crosswords. Is it possible that my father, a lover of cowboy and crime novels and crosswords, was a secret fan of The Bard?
I doubt it but I’ll never really know. This, however, I do know, my small, dog-eared copy of The Tempest possessed some quality or other. And though I didn’t see it back then as a fifteen year old student, I see now, that it had that ‘feel’ that a lot of old books possess.
My copy of The Tempest, had, for want of a better word, ‘presence’.
As for Brother Brett, my English teacher, if ever a man had presence, he had. Six foot three or four, he was well-built, had jet-black, slicked-back hair, sallow complexion and wore delicate, gold-framed glasses. From our fifteen-year-old point of view, he was,
literally, a giant of a man. But gentle. There was an extraordinary gentleness about this huge man who took extraordinary pride in his delicate, copperplate script when writing on the blackboard.
I can see him clearly to this day, standing back from the blackboard, admiring his handiwork which most certainly deserved admiration. And I can see him looking out over those gold-framed glasses at us, wondering if he was wasting his time, wondering, as he was wont to ask: if he was casting pearls before swine – a biblical quotation that was lost on us teenagers.
It was Brother Brett who instilled in me a love of poetry, whatever about a love of Shakespeare. I will always remember him reading Patrick Pearse’s poem The Wayfarer. I can sill hear that powerful, melodic voice of his as he intoned:
“To see a leaping squirrel in a tree
or a red lady-bird upon a stalk
and little rabbits in a field at evening
lit by a slanting sun”
“Can you see it, boys?”, he would rhetorically ask. “Can you see it?” Well I don’t know if any of us saw what Brother Brett saw but he did manage to awaken in me, not so much a tempest, but a spark of creativity, an appreciation of Nature and a way of seeing and thinking like a writer.
The last time I met Brother Brett was at a Rosc exhibition of contemporary international art in the RDS in Dublin when I was only too delighted to inform him that I was now studying English in UCD. “Thanks in no small measure to you, brother”, I wanted to say, but didn’t. Too shy. Way too shy.
A lifetime later, and always at this time of year, I still think about, and silently thank, that gentle giant of a Christian Brother who loved poetry, art and a tiny, dog-eared copy of
Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
I went to a tough school. I remember the teacher asking what comes at the end of a sentence and a kid says: “An appeal”.