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A teacher in school convinced me I was a useless lump of dung

His voice always made me shiver, but he also contributed greatly – albeit inadvertently – to my moral development

My teacher regularly indulged himself in the conviction that in terms of career I was likely to end up on the petrol pumps. Photograph: David Jones/PA Wire

“We should take up golf,” the General suggested.

“That’s a wonderful idea,” I agreed. “It might keep us healthy.”

In fact I learned a lot about life from golfers when I was young. I lived near the golf links and spent hours hidden in the bushes along the rough that skirted the fairways. I was looking for balls. And the easiest way to find them was to lie hidden near a difficult junction where players were liable to lose them.

When players shot their balls into the rough and failed to find them, I noted where they had landed and could easily retrieve them when the player moved on. At six pennies per ball this was a lucrative trade. I lay still for long periods of time on the flat of my back listening to blackbirds, and waiting for the next player to swing his club too hard and lose his balls in the long grass beside me.


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But it was a particular teacher whose voice always made me shiver. He drove a dark green Volkswagen and had little time for my ability at school. Normally he towered over me and ran his red pen across my copy with furious contempt and I’d say that if he ever found me lying in the ditch trying to rob his balls, he’d have beaten me to a pulp with his golf club.

“If ignorance is bliss,” he was wont to declare in class, “then you shall have a happy Christmas.”

From such discouraging encounters in my educational development, I grew the conviction that I was a useless lump of dung, destined to get everything wrong in life.

Although that has had some advantages. Acknowledging my stupidity has helped me to see that being wrong is a positive. One should always strive to be wrong. That’s an outlook that has gifted me with a relish for philosophy; because in philosophy the answer is always ultimately wrong.

But the sense of failure that was embedded in me during secondary school was layered deep and thick by the time I sat the Leaving Certificate. My teacher regularly indulged himself in the conviction that in terms of career I was likely to end up on the petrol pumps.

I could see the laces of his shoes through the blades of grass as he approached my hidden nest

A petrol pump attendant was not a position of great dignity in small-town Ireland. And I fear my teacher may have despised the poorer boys who spent their days filling the petrol tanks of the professional classes. He probably filled his own tank on Saturday mornings before driving his swanky Volkswagen to the golf club for his weekend round.

Sometimes his balls did end up in the rough beside me and he would approach with his number nine iron, and beat the long grass like a man trying to beat out a pheasant. His finger nails were always perfectly manicured. He was fastidious in everything. So he always found the balls. And he’d sometimes give a little grunt; a very private moment of self-satisfaction. Then I’d watch him move farther down the fairway towards the green, grunting as he clipped his ball every closer to the flag on the green.

But one morning I saw him in the distance teeing up a shot in the company of three other players. His club was an enormous driver – like a large teapot with an extremely long spout – and I sensed before he hit it that I was in trouble. He whacked it into the air and it fell between my legs.

I was terrified of being seen when he came close to where I lay. I could see the laces of his shoes through the blades of grass as he approached my hidden nest.

Clearly he wouldn’t find it without finding me as well but to my relief he didn’t even look. He checked if the other players were watching. They were not. So he took another ball from his pocket, dropped it to the ground and shouted – I have it.

He steadied himself for the next shot. The clack was definitive, mighty in it’s power, the ball flying into the clouds and far away, until it passed over the green and landed in a small lake of water. The disaster was too much for him.

“Fucking bollocks,” he hissed under his teeth, shoving the club back in the bag, and marching onwards towards the green. I was greatly enriched by the experience. It wasn’t just because I now possessed one of his balls. But the encounter had contributed greatly to my moral development.