"If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times, O'Rourke," Mr. Morrison bellowed from the front of the class. "Maths homework must be done. Do you think you're going to spend the rest of your life boxing and writing stories?"
Shane O'Rourke sat in the end seat, at the back of the classroom, in the row furthest from the door. He had been relegated to this position since the beginning of fourth year and still occupied the spot in fifth year. At sixteen years old, he was the only boy in his class to sit at the same desk for almost two years running.
Mr. Morrison rotated every pupil at the end of each month based on test performance, completed homework, and general attitude. He adopted a dictatorial approach to teaching and disliked most of the boys who sat in front of him. Some of them, he hated. This was well known, and he made no attempt to disguise it.
Shane stared at his desk and refused to look up. He tired of listening to 'Bony M', the maths teacher, a long time ago.
"O'Rourke! Are you deaf?"
"Then answer the question."
"What was the question, sir?"
"You heard what I said, O'Rourke. Do you think I'm going to stand here and repeat myself for the likes of you? Is that what you think, O'Rourke?"
"Then answer the question and stop wasting my time. There are pupils in this class who want to learn."
"No, sir, what?"
"No, sir, I just answered the question - whatever it was."
"Right, that's it. Come up here, boy. I'm tired of your insolence. Let's see if a couple of licks with the strap will teach you manners."
Mr. Morrison reached into his briefcase and took out his blackjack. The boys looked on in awe. Shane O'Rourke outperformed everyone in his class, in every subject, including maths, but he hated Bony M. and never did his homework. Shane always referred to him as a 'lightweight'. Most of the lads thought this was because of Mr. Morrison's physique. He was seriously underweight, smoked constantly, and looked emaciated. One of the boys, Buddy Scanlon, once claimed, there was 'more sinew in snot, and muscle in mucus'.
Others knew what Shane meant. Mr. Morrison had taught woodwork in the school. When old Mr. Fox, the soft-spoken and friendly maths teacher retired, Mr. Morrison had to teach a few maths classes. According to Shane, and indeed most of the boys in his group, Bony M. should have been left to cut wood and complain about bad dovetail joints.
Shane strutted up to the front of the room and held out his hand. "Just a minute, O'Rourke. Put your hand down. I'll tell you when to raise it. It's important that the class understands why you're being punished." He put his hand on Shane's shoulder and ushered him toward the front row.
"Now class. This is what's called a learning experience. What we have here is a good example of failure, and a total lack of respect for the mission statement of this school. We all know what the motto of St. Peter's Grammar School for boys is. Don't we?" Mr. Morrison paused for a reply. A few of the pupils uttered a weak response. Mr. Morrison hit a desk with his strap and shouted. "I didn't hear you 12R."
Jolted by his action, the class responded in unison. "Usque conabor."
"Indeed it is, but I couldn't hear you. Again, please."
"Usque conabor," the boys shouted.
"Usque conabor," they roared.
"That's better. Much better." He turned to Shane. "Now, Mr. O'Rourke, perhaps as the literary genius among us, you could translate our motto for us. I'm sure, as someone who has won the Belfast Telegraph's writing competitions, you'd be capable of that. If only your friends, Seamus Heaney and Michael Mc Laverty, could see you now."
Shane responded. "The English translation is: 'I will try my utmost'."
"Indeed you will. Come again, Mr. O'Rourke. Nice and loud so the whole class can hear."
"I will try my utmost," he repeated.
"Do you hear that, class? We will try our utmost. Mr. O'Rourke here is familiar with our mission statement. Is he committed to our ethos though? Does he appreciate everything the Christian Brothers have done for him? Is he grateful for the opportunity to attend a good Catholic school and receive an education that will benefit him for life?" Mr. Morrison smacked the desk with his leather again. "Does he appreciate this, class?" No one answered.
The boys liked Shane. They nicknamed him Speedy for his fighting skills. A tough, quiet, self-disciplined, lad, he fought for Holy Trinity. He held several Ulster and Irish titles. He won numerous provincial writing competitions and had been awarded prizes by some of Ireland's literary greats. He had a tremendous sense of fair play. There were no bullies in 12R. Speedy protected the weaker lads.
Apparently he had problems at home too. His father had left his mother, two younger brothers, and his younger sister, a few years ago. No one knew whether he was living or dead. Rumour had it, he'd been kidnapped by a paramilitary organisation. Some said he'd been shot, and buried in a shallow grave somewhere.
"We're very quiet today, class," Mr. Morrison continued. "Perhaps, like myself, you're keen to get on with your work." He turned to Speedy. "This boy is insolent and shows nothing but contempt for our founding principles. He is an ill-reared pup, and some day he will thank me for teaching him values. As you rightly said, Mr. O'Rourke, we will try our utmost. Now, hold out your hand."
Speedy straightened his back, inhaled, and expanded his chest. His strong biceps and powerful shoulders bulged through his blazer. His angular jaw, flat nose and crew cut, gave him the appearance of an army drill instructor. He kept his arms by his side.
"That's not what I said," he claimed.
"Don't start with your gibberish, O'Rourke. The whole class heard you."
"No, it didn't. It couldn't have. I spoke in the first person singular. The personal pronoun was 'I' not 'we'. The possessive pronoun was 'my' not 'our'. I spoke for myself, no one else. Furthermore, I'm not an animal, and I'm certainly not an ill-reared pup."
Mr. Morrison's face reddened. He paced back and forth a few times without speaking, then stopped abruptly and addressed the class. "You see, this is what happens when someone thinks he's above school rules. On top of everything else, we now have a smart Alec." He turned to Speedy. "Hold out your hand."
Speedy stood rigid and stared at him. "Your hand," the teacher repeated. Every boy in the class gazed at Speedy. He didn't move. Exasperated, Mr. Morrison lunged forward in an attempt to hit him on the shoulder with the belt. Speedy stepped aside, grabbed the belt and pulled it from him. He walked casually to the window and tossed it out. At that moment, he noticed something on the roof below.
One of the boys started a slow handclap. Others followed. Pupils began to pound their desktops. They chanted Speedy's name, slowly at first, then quickly. Mr. Morrison roared at the top of his voice and threatened to have them all suspended. A few of the boys desisted and the rest eventually followed. With order restored, Mr. Morrison turned to Speedy. "Go down to the headmaster and tell him I sent you."
Speedy shrugged and left the classroom. On his way to the headmaster's office, he stopped at the top of the stairwell to check out what he had seen from the classroom window. A number of extractor fans used in the ground floor science labs were encased in a small, perforated sheet metal shed on the flat rooftop. The shed was visible from the second floor. Speedy saw the shadow of someone crouched inside. He checked his watch. It was 10:15 a.m. The bell would ring for break at 10:40 a.m. Every morning for the last month a British Army foot patrol passed the school gates during break. An additional teacher had been positioned at the gates to prevent any confrontation between the boys and the soldiers. The young boys from West Belfast hated British soldiers, and the potential for a riot existed any time they came in contact.
Speedy rapped the principal's door. A strong voice invited him in. The headmaster sat at his desk writing. An older man, he always dealt fairly with the boys and they respected him. At the sight of Speedy, he threw down his pen, leaned back on his chair and greeted him. "Shane. How are you? Have a seat. Good to see you. What can I do for you?"
"Hello, Brother John," Speedy said, pulling up a chair in front of the huge mahogany desk. "I've been sent by Mr. Morrison."
Brother John rolled his eyes. "Don't tell me. Homework?"
"That's right, Brother. He called me an ill-reared pup, and when I refused to take slaps, he tried to hit me across the shoulder with the blackjack."
"I took it off him and threw it out the window."
Brother John thought for a moment. "You realize of course none of this would have happened had you done your homework in the first instance."
"He would just find some other reason to pick on me."
"I don't know, but ever since he made that remark about my dad . . ."
Brother John came from behind his desk and leaned against it. "What remark about your dad?"
Speedy shrugged. "Nothing."
"Shane you need to talk to me. What remark about your dad?"
"He said . . . he said, the Provos were like Hitler. A lot of people hated them, but they purged us of the evils of our society - especially undesirables."
Shane dropped his head and began to sniffle. Brother John reached into his cassock pocket, pulled out a handkerchief and handed it to him.
"Your dad was a good man, Shane. I knew him well. He taught you the difference between right and wrong. He taught you how to fight for what was right. You must continue to do that. Now I'm not condoning Mr. Morrison's words or actions, but maybe if you did some maths homework, and I had a chat with him, we could resolve this problem. How does that sound?"
Shane dried his eyes and handed Brother John his handkerchief. "Yeah, okay. That sounds good."
"Fine. Keep the handkerchief. Now go back to class and tell Mr. Morrison I'm taking care of this matter."
Shane rose to go. "By the way, How's your mom?"
"She's all right, Brother. Good days and bad days."
"Tell her I'll be round to see her sometime. Money has been made available to the school to help parents with special circumstances. I can think of no one more deserving."
"Okay, I'll tell her," Shane said, as he opened the huge oak door and left.
Brother John shook his head a few times, walked over to the large window overlooking the school yard and gazed down toward the gates. The bell rang and the boys began to file out. A British Army foot patrol made its way up the Falls Road.
On his way back to collect his school bag, Speedy checked out the roof again. He could see the muzzle of a gun through the slats in the shed pointing toward the road. He thought for a moment, decided to leave the bag and rushed down to the playground. None of the teachers had arrived for duty. A few of the boys loitered by the front gates. Speedy ran down and stood on the low wall surrounding the school. As the first soldier passed, he shouted: "British bastard. Why don't you go back to your own fucking country?"
The soldier stopped and approached him. "I would, only I've to protect scum like you."
"Who the fuck you calling scum?" Speedy shouted, within earshot of the other boys. He then jumped off the wall, grabbed the soldier and pulled him to the ground.
The pupils nearby began to shout. "Boys, boys, the Brits have got Speedy. Come quick. Come on. The Brits are killing Speedy." Within seconds, the word spread. Hundreds of boys descended on the school gates armed with bottles and stones they gathered along the way.
As a hail of missiles rained onto the road, Speedy held the soldier beneath him. "There's a sniper on the roof," he shouted. "Get your men out. There's a sniper on the roof. Drag me across the road. Cover yourself," he roared, as he rolled off the soldier pretending to be hurt.
In an instant the young soldier leapt up and ordered his men to take cover on the opposite side of the street. He then pulled Speedy onto his feet, grabbed him by the neck and stayed behind him as he dragged him across the road. When he released him, Speedy ran back toward the crowd and continued to shout obscenities. Within minutes an army helicopter circled over the school. As teachers ran toward the gates, Brother John looked back. He saw a sole gunman abscond down the fire escape, weapon in hand, and disappear into the maze of small streets at the back of the school.
It took about ten minutes for the teachers to get the boys under control. Two army Saracens arrived to take the soldiers to safety. A few days later, Shane O'Rourke was summoned to the principal's office. Rumour had it he would be expelled. Mr. Morrison told other members of staff the boy was an ill-reared upstart and the sooner the school got rid of him the better.
"Sit down, Shane," Brother John, demanded. "You know why you're here, don't you?"
"Yes, Brother," Shane said, staring at the floor.
"Have you anything to say for yourself?"
"No, Brother. I don't know what got into me."
"A totally unprovoked attack against a few soldiers doing their job. What's the matter with you? I mean, I know you have problems, but how can I overlook something like this?"
"I know, Brother. You can't."
"So, that's it. You've nothing to say for yourself."
Brother John walked over to the window. "You know the other brothers and I live in the house behind the school - don't you, Shane?"
"Last night, two very special men came to visit me. They were dressed in civilian clothes. One was a corporal in the British Army, the other was Major-General Andrew Jackson, Commander in Chief of ground forces here in the North." Shane looked up.
"What would you like to do when you leave St. Peter's, Shane?"
"Go to Queen's, Brother. Study Law."
"Good. That's good. To do what?"
"To become a barrister."
"It so happens the British Army fund scholarships to Queen's University. It is anxious to provide one for a pupil in this school. Some boy apparently jumped on a young corporal. General said something about bravery in the face of great personal danger. Would you know anything about that, Shane?"
"Yes, Brother. I was fighting with the Brits."
"You were. You were indeed, Shane. I think, all things being considered, it's best left that way. Don't you?"
"Good. So if anyone asks you, I'm taking care of this matter. Understood?"
"Fine. So there's a scholarship with your name on it for Queen's School of Law. You understand that, don't you?"
"Good. Go back to class now, and remember, all anyone needs to know is that I'm taking care of this matter."
Shane walked toward the office door and just before he opened it, Brother John, said: "Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention. A young teacher came highly recommended seeking substitute work. I took him on. He's a maths teacher. He'll be taking Mr. Morrison's classes. So I don't want to see you down here for failing to do maths homework any more. Is that clear, Shane?"
"Good. Run along then."
"Yes, Brother. Thank you, Brother."
Speedy O'Rourke blessed himself at the foot of his father's grave in Milltown Cemetery. The black marble headstone read: 'Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on the soul of Sean O'Rourke. Murdered for his beliefs, 26 June 1976'.
He walked further up the cemetery and said a prayer at another grave. The headstone read: 'Brother John Cosgrove. Died 24 February 1982'.
A cold November wind swept across the graveyard. Shane, Speedy O'Rourke, Barrister at Law, needed to give thanks today. He had just won an important ruling in a high court case that had lasted two months. There were a few men he had to acknowledge for this. Unfortunately, they were no longer with him. He looked at his watch. He had to hurry. It was 6:30 p.m. His son had a fight in Holy Trinity at 7:00 p.m.
At the end of the first round, he removed his son's gum shield. "How many times do I have to tell you, Sean? If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times."
"I know, Dad, I know. No matter what anyone tells me, I have to keep my chin down in the ring. Outside the ring's the place for keeping my chin up."
"That's right. Don't forget that. Now, go back out there and show them what you've got."
"Yes, Dad," the young boy said, hooking his father lightly on the chin. "If you've told me once, you've told me, a thousand times."
The story is set in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. Corporal punishment was still allowed.
Blackjack-Leather strap for slapping pupils.
Barrister-legal advocate in higher courts