Patrick Lawlor says:
Recently the Craft Class at the Writers Studio studied Marie Howe’s book of poems, What the Living Do. Although I’m a fiction writer, I’m often influenced by the poets we read in Craft Class. Marie Howe’s book had a great impact on me because of the way that she had turned many of her terrible childhood experiences into beautiful works of art. I admired the way that she was able to describe her childhood self with empathy, but without ever sinking into self-pity.
So in recent weeks I’ve been experimenting with fictional stories that were inspired by my own autobiographical experiences. I’ve been bringing the work into class in small sections, which has been very helpful. For example, the piece below received a positive response overall, as well as constructive advice about the need to slow down the pace and flesh out each scene.
School in Ireland was very different from New York. The boys’ school was surrounded by farmland, and there was electric fencing all around the playground, designed to give shocks to any stray cow or child. In my Manhattan school there had been televisions, a hot-lunch cafeteria and an auditorium; here there were wooden benches and a bicycle-shed where you ate sandwiches when it rained, which turned out to be most days.
The school sport was hurling, a game originated by our barbarian ancestors. It was a sort of uber-hockey played in mid-air; twenty screaming players waving heavy hurleysticks leapt over each other while taking wild swings at a flying ball. Helmets were required, but there were never enough to go around so I always ignored the ball entirely and clutched my stick high with both hands to protect my face. In one game someone’s hurley cracked me hard across the shin and I just lay crying for ten minutes in the grass field, while the schoolmaster yelled that I was letting my team down.
I was put into a class with Mr. Creegan, a teacher with a thick black beard. Every day we were given a spelling test. For every misspelled word a boy was given a hard whack on the palm with Mr Creegan’s ruler. I watched boys blink hard as they went back to their desks, squeezing their sore hand into an armpit for comfort. Half the assigned words in the spelling test were always in Gaelic, a language completely strange to me. In terror of the wooden ruler with the metal edge, I learned how to perfectly spell all the meaningless words: ceili, doras, uisce, bothran, taoiseach. I got through four months and three hundred of the Celtic words without missing a single one, or understanding any of them. I knew that my lucky streak couldn’t last, so when I moved into a higher grade I told the new teacher, Mr O’Grady, that I was returning to New York to live with my father soon, and there was no point in teaching me Gaelic. He believed this, and I was excused from those lessons.
Anyway, I had enough trouble just trying to understand the local version of English. Everyone spoke fast, twisted words in sentences that always pitched upwards to a whine. When Vinnie Murtagh said "Awenchu tapitchers chewsday," I had to ask him to repeat it three times before I understood that he meant he’d been to the movies last Tuesday. Every conversation was a painful decryption exercise, and the idea that I might someday have such an awful Dublin accent was repulsive. I lay in bed and worried. My very thoughts were made of words, after all, and by absorbing this horrible dialect I would surely lose my ability to reason. I had no choice but to resist the infection, which wasn’t easy. Mr O’Grady kept me in detention one day when I argued about his incorrect pronunciation of "aluminum." My task grew harder as time passed and my brothers and sisters were assimilated, leaving me alone in my native tongue. I was forced to rely on TV shows like "Charlie’s Angels" to help maintain my English skills.
The lay schoolteachers loved to wear lapel pins of one kind or another. There was the red Pioneer pin, indicating that the wearer had taken a vow to abstain from all alcohol. Others wore a pin consisting of two tiny silver footprints; these represented the actual-size feet of a poor aborted baby, and were worn in memorial of its murder. Also popular was the fainne (fawnya), a gold circle worn by patriots who preferred to speak Gaelic rather than the language of the brutal British Empire. Any teacher wearing a complete set of all three pins was guaranteed to be a right vicious bastard.
As for the black-robed Brothers, there were three sorts we agreed: the Practical, the Paralytic, and the Diabolical. The Practicals were men-of-the-world who took no nonsense, but who were also fair. The Paralytics were the nervous types who always dropped their notes and kept pleading with us to sit down and stop throwing erasers. And the Diabolicals said little, but carried leather straps and kept lists of our demerits in their small black notebooks.
After three years of evasion I was summoned by the headmaster, Brother Hubert. Like it or not he said, all students in Irish schools were required to learn Irish, and I could no longer skip those lessons. Worse still, my Gaelic test scores would be included in my national grade average - so my ongoing competition with Declan Carroll to be top of the class was now set for defeat. I complained about this injustice to my mother. Oh well, she said. That evening I wrote a furious nine-page letter to Mr MacDulaigh, the national Minister for Education. I gave multiple points of evidence proving that Gaelic was a worthless language, more dead than Latin which at least had some use in naming species of flowers. Show me a single Yeats poem in Gaelic I said, and maybe there’d be something to discuss. I concluded by demanding diplomatic immunity and made some oblique comments about the size of the U.S Navy.
The next day I reported to Mr. MacDonnail’s remedial Gaelic class. Mr MacDonnail wore all three lapel pins. In here my poor Yank, he said, you won’t go by your Anglo slave-name. Rather I was to be called by my one true name, Padraig O’Leoabhair (o-la-hoor), which was news to me. The class was reading "Peig," the memoir of an old woman who had lived ages ago in a fishing-village. From this book I learned a lot of different Gaelic words for seaweed. As for the story, it seemed that in most chapters someone got drowned or married and Peig baked her special sodabread to bring to their wake or wedding, and that was just about the major excitement for that village.
My test scores sank. Mr MacDonnail also taught after-school activities for extra credit, and asked if I had any interest in Irish stepdancing. No way, I said, absolutely no kilt under any circumstances, no matter how low my grades drop.
A few weeks later the headmaster summoned me again to his office. Brother Hubert said he’d received an unusual letter from the Minister of Education. Apparently I was being granted a unique exemption from all Gaelic requirements.
It was the greatest victory of my life.
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