Imagination in the classroom – and how, in the past, schools destroyed creativity

Forget the inspirational teachers and creative encouragement that many writers experienced at school. Playwright Frank McGuinness recalls a schooling in the 1950s and 60s that sickens his stomach, and ‘beat the lining out of any love for exploring the intricacies of language’

Remembering my schooldays in Donegal, in the fearful 1950s and 1960s, could I ever then believed I might one day see the words “imagination” and “classroom” in a single title? Classrooms were where we parroted numbers, learning by rote, leaving us lost in the maze of mathematics, letting one stay there, stumbling to get away eventually and never, ever go back.

Lined up against the walls – thart ar an seomra – those words still can sicken my stomach as we pitted English word against Gaelic word in the dreaded white spelling book that beat the lining out of any love for exploring the intricacies of either language, one a clot of conjugations and inflammable declensions, the other darkened by the blatant lie of its inferiority to the bias of some parish from where we were barred entry, poor banished children of Buncrana and of all its Adams and Eves who spoke bearla.

In that county, ablaze with its own treasury of songs in both tongues, reflecting the wonderful meeting of cultures, we were kept deaf to all music but what the tone-deaf authorities governing the national curriculum dictated we might hear.

Is it surprising that in those classrooms poetry was drudgery, prose breaking stones? What could such a schooling do but stunt us? What could free us? What could save us? A miracle? I don’t believe too much in miracles, and I believe less in salvation, but freedom is always irresistible, and the first act of freedom is hearing yourself question what was taught, question what was learned before, seeing yourself changed into saying, I don’t believe what I should believe. You dare then to do the unthinkable, which is to think.


And from that first act of thinking comes feeling, not fear nor terror, no, feeling something else entirely, feeling air, clear air and the skill to navigate through, under and over it, the skill of one’s self, the sense of one’s self, raising above your station in life, rejecting that status, no longer knowing who you think you are, empowered now by the almighty surge of everything changing, the change of telling your story, hearing it and knowing you have heard your heart beating – a music of your thunderous making, a music to match any other, and that from this instant on nothing can now be the same.

Something massive has happened. What is it? Writing, that’s what. Creation. As simple, as big as that. Can it be taught? Naysayers bleat. Let me answer this by saying that was not even the question our education system asked itself for too long. No, it was content to assert it had better not be taught. That time is over.

We now teach it. Why? Because as our country rises from the ashes from the mess of our own making, struggling again to make some fist of itself, we answer. We teach it because we have to, because we have to, because we have to. No better, no bigger reason.

A revolution’s begun. It continues. This book is part of it.