To Sir with Love
INTERVIEW A love of teaching and of literature go hand in hand for Niall MacMonagle, whose latest book is a hugely entertaining compendium designed to get 15-year-olds reading – but sure to engage everyone else, too. GRAINNE FALLERmeets an exceptional teacher
GRAHAM WALKER WAS just four hours out of hospital when he put pen to paper. The 26-year-old had been brutally stabbed in the chest and left for dead a fortnight earlier. He was living in England and hadn’t yet told his parents about the ordeal, so he was writing a letter to his old English teacher instead.
The letter is a snapshot of a highly traumatised young man – articulate and funny, but frustrated with his slow recovery. Even when describing the stabbing and its aftermath, his tone is witty and strangely upbeat. Just occasionally, a crack appears, giving the reader a brief glimpse of the anxiety and turmoil that lies beneath. Walker’s description of an old lady holding his hand, as he “soaked into her hall carpet” in the aftermath of the mugging that summer night, is at once horrific and touching. But then the ambulance comes and the mood lightens as he dismisses the subsequent routine as one we have seen “in a thousand movies”.
Years later, Graham Walker became Graham Norton and he has since described that time in interviews and profiles. One suspects, however, that none of those descriptions can come close to the one he wrote in that letter to Niall MacMonagle, his former English teacher in Bandon Grammar School.
That Norton thought to write such a letter to a teacher he encountered in secondary school might seem strange, but on meeting MacMonagle, it is unsurprising. He seems like the kind of teacher who would make a lasting impression.
The man sometimes described as “Ireland’s best-known English teacher” is a hugely engaging individual. He refers to authors in conversation like the old friends they are. You can’t help but be interested – his enthusiasm is utterly infectious. By the time we reach his classroom, we have already discussed the optimism of young people, US president Barack Obama, and Norton’s letter, which appears in Text, MacMonagle’s latest book. “Here you go,” he says, handing me a great pile of books – all works that he has edited, compiled or written. One wonders when the man sleeps.
MacMonagle is perhaps most famous for his Lifelinesseries of books in which famous people selected a favourite poem at the request of his students. “Suddenly in the 1980s, famine was a global issue,” he recalls. “Africa was in crisis and everybody wanted to help, but what could you do as a school?”
It was then that MacMonagle hit upon the idea which he pitched to his fifth-year class. “All we had to lose was the price of a stamp,” he says. “So we sent out letters to famous people and those famous people responded.”
The very first Lifelineswas a home-made affair. “We made a little stapled booklet,” MacMonagle says. “It sold out in two days. We actually sent a copy to Kevin Myers who called it the finest publication of the year.”
More booklets followed before MacMonagle approached a publisher, whose initial reluctance evaporated when they realised they had a massive hit on their hands. The first book spent 14 weeks on top of the bestseller list.
The likes of Sebastian Barry, Ted Hughes, Judi Dench, Bertie Ahern and Michael Parkinson contributed to two more books. This was followed in 2006 by a “best of” anthology, along with a number of new contributions.
“It’s the simplest idea,” says MacMonagle. “It’s not a new idea by any means. People are always asked about favourites – favourite colour, book, music – why not a favourite poem? It took off in Ireland because people aren’t embarrassed by poetry. Look at how Seamus Heaney’s birthday was celebrated this year. It was just wonderful.”
Teaching wasn’t an immediate calling for MacMonagle but he knew one thing for certain. “I always wanted to be associated with books,” he says. “When I worked in the family printing press during the summers, I spent most of my money on buying the complete works of DH Lawrence and the complete Hardy.”
On finishing school he went on to study English in UCC. It was there he realised what he wanted to do with his life. “I decided that long-term I wanted to tell other people how wonderful books are,” he says. “I mean, when you’re a teacher, you get up in the morning and you know you’re going to attempt to do something positive and good. You’re going to bring people to a place that will allow them to become their own person.”
But of course, for every teacher, the spectre of State examinations looms on the horizon. How does MacMonagle cope with the fact that school has become so exam focused?
“Well I teach them for life,” he smiles wryly. “But of course there is the exam and obviously right now we’re in the home stretch, so it’s very focused. We’re looking at exam technique, time management, the marking scheme, how they’re going to be examined.”
He is positive about the recent changes to the English course and exams. “I know pupils are happier with the exam now,” he says. “It’s interesting though, when the course changed a few years ago we all thought, ‘Oh great, now we can teach The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, we can teach Inside I’m Dancing.’ But then at the end of the year I asked my class, ‘Who’s the best?’ They all said Shakespeare! They’re right of course. You can’t beat him.”
Wesley College, his place of work since 1983, is an educational paradise with wonderful facilities and no shortage of funds. “This is privilege,” MacMonagle says. “It is what every school ought to be, in fact. But that’s not the way of the world.”
Text,MacMonagle’s new reader for transition year, is an exhilarating mix of poetry, short stories, plays, diary entries and speeches. “We’ve been doing the work in this book for yonks,” he says.
From the time he had the idea for Text, MacMonagle knew that Norton’s letter from all those years ago would fit very well into a mix that was aiming to appeal to 15-year-olds, both now and later on in life. Although the pair had corresponded for years, he thought long and hard before approaching Norton about including it. Encouraged by his wife, MacMonagle wrote an e-mail to Norton to see whether he would have any objection to the letter being published. Five minutes after pressing send, a message from Norton shot back. He was only too delighted.
MacMonagle believes that literature is a gentle way to introduce students to some of life’s complexities. “If you look at the short story Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway, it’s the classic story of a man and a woman having a conversation over a very brief period of time. The man is attempting to persuade his girlfriend to have an abortion. But it’s so subtly done. Abortion is never mentioned.”
Some might question whether a topic like abortion is appropriate for English class, but MacMonagle has his own views on that. “Students hear the ugliness of the world on Joe Duffy and they see it in the tabloids and on the news and in serious newspapers,” he says. “I think when literature explores these worlds it reminds them that life is complex, life can be challenging and difficult. No one wants to go on life’s journey with a simplistic view of things.”
He takes care to link his subject into the real world, using newspaper articles and events such as the Booker Prize to bring it all to life. “It’s all relevant,” he says.
Poetry is a real passion. “There isn’t an emotion that a poet hasn’t explored or captured,” he says. “You can go from the silly to the profound to the disturbing to the outrageous. It’s all there.”
And he never seems to tire of teaching his subject material. “When I was teaching Hamlet for the seventh time I was struck by a line that I had never really paid attention to before,” he recalls. “It’s a beautiful scene between Horatio and Hamlet towards the end. Hamlet knows he is going to die and he says to Horatio, ‘Man’s life’s no more. Then to say one . . .’ That’s it – one.” It reminds me of a line from a Mary Oliver poem that appears in the book. It says: “Tell me what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
That line, MacMonagle believes, is a key one for students in transition year as well as teenagers in general. He is full of warmth and empathy when talking about his charges. “Teenage years are the most difficult of your life. You want freedom, you have no autonomy, you want money and you have none. You’re obsessed with your appearance and how others view you. It’s a very difficult time,” he says. “But they keep one young. There’s no doubt about that.”
TEXT, edited by Niall MacMonagle, is published by The Celtic Press, €17.90