‘That’s what they are, these non-fee-paying schools. They’re sewage plants, belching out human effluent’
Edward Newenham is on a serious roll now. “You go and visit Mountjoy jail,” he goes, tapping his index finger on the boardroom table. “You go there this very day and you’ll discover that there is one thing that ninety-nine per cent of this country’s prison population has in common. They were the recipients of a so-called free education. Because that’s what they are, you see, these non-fee-paying schools. They’re sewage plants, belching out human effluent.”
The dude knows what he’s talking about. He used to be an actual judge.
“And I don’t want the school that I love, where I studied, where my sons studied, where my grandsons study today, to become a glorified youth detention centre.”
I have to say, I’m very much enjoying my first meeting as a member of the Castlerock College Board of Governors. We’re discussing, as you’ve probably already guessed, the proposal by the Principal, Tom McGahy, to abolish fees from September and apply for funding from the Deportment of Education. But while I’m enjoying the cut-and-thrust of the whole debate, I’m also aware – as the newly-elected past pupils’ representative – of the massive responsibility that rests on my shoulders. I’ve tried to look at McGahy’s secretary’s norks only twice since she arrived to take the minutes.
“I think a great many people would find that offensive,” McGahy tries to go. “Your characterisation of young people who don’t have the privilege of an expensive education as some kind of criminal class-in-waiting is grossly unfair.”
Odhran O’Reilly, who’s one of McGahy’s cronies, goes, “I’m inclined to agree with Tom. I don’t believe a fee-paying education makes anyone less liable to commit a criminal act. Read the papers. Watch the news. The people whose greed and folly destroyed this country – most of them were privately educated. The only thing that Mountjoy statistic of yours proves is that people who went to private schools tend to go unpunished for their crimes.”
“And proper bloody well order!” Edward shouts, thumping the table this time.
He’s as nutty as squirrel shit, but at least he’s on my side, as is David Ramsay, McGahy’s deputy chairman, who’s already taken a backhander of twenty Ks from my old man to vote against the proposal.
It was, like, money well spent, because he’s the next one to speak up. He’s there, “I have been frankly depressed by this recent trend of Ireland’s once-elite schools entering the free education system. I realise there are financial imperatives involved. But this move will serve only to denigrate the great name of Castlerock.”
McGahy goes, “What use is a name if the school has to close? Because that’s what we’re facing. You’ve all seen the numbers. We have forty new student applications for next year. Ten years ago, we had five times that figure. We were turning students away. Parents can’t afford our fees anymore. That’s the economic reality.”
I decide to throw my two cents in then. That’s the reason I was elected.
“As you know,” I go, “my old man and a group of his mates are each prepared to put up a hundred Ks to meet the shortfall in the school’s running costs over the next three years.”
McGahy cuts me off. He thinks it’s, like, a total joke that I’ve ended up on the board.
“And what about when those three years are up?” he goes. “We’ll find ourselves back here again, having to make the decision that we’re talking about putting off now.”
The only one of us who’s still in any way swayable is Terri Trenier, the recently widowed old dear of Mark Trenier, a dude who was in my class. Given that the vote currently stands at three for and three against, this entire debate is basically for her benefit? Whatever she says goes. And right now – as is a woman’s prerogative – she hasn’t a focking clue what she wants.
“I can see the arguments in favour and against the proposal,” she goes, looking at us all over the top of her reading glasses. “I appreciate, Tom, that your priority is to safeguard the future of the school and its five hundred pupils. But I can also see David’s point that Castlerock will cease to be Castlerock the very moment we start accepting handouts from the public purse.”
We all stare at her for a good 10 minutes. It’s like waiting for Sorcha order in a restaurant. You could grow a pretty healthy beard waiting. In the end, she goes, “I really don’t think I can give you an answer tonight. Can we put it off until next week’s meeting?”
Which, as it happens, is muesli to my ears. It gives me the chance to use what Hennessy, the old man’s solicitor, referred to as my peculiar chorm. Ever the gentleman, the second the meeting is over, I offer to walk her back to her cor.
“I was sorry to hear about your husband,” I go. “I was actually in school with your son.” I hope he never mentioned me. I bullied the shit out of him.
“Oh,” she goes, “thank you. Yes, it’s been hard. That’s what’s making my decision with this thing even more difficult. I keep thinking what would Beircheart want me to do?”
I’m there, “It gets easier, you know. Speaking as someone who’s lost someone myself.”
She’s like, “Is your wife . . .?”
“We’re divorced,” I go.
I hate lying. But it has to be done. I’m there, “I hope this doesn’t come across as forward, but would you be interested in having dinner with me some time?”
She’s shocked at first. But then I see her eyes check out the contours of my sixpack through my tight Abercrombie, like she’s reading a Tube map.
This time she does come to a decision. She goes, “That would be . . . very nice.”
ILLUSTRATION: ALAN CLARKE