He sat in the back room of the old farmhouse, in the corner beside the fireplace where he would have sat each evening for decades. Staring into nothingness, he silently reflected on memories that still remained, memories that seemed filled with a deep contentment.
“How far was the school from your home place – a mile and a half?”
“Closer to three. My sister and I walked it many times”.
“Was it a one teacher school?”
“No, there were two. There was Mrs Jay in the senior room and Mr Bruce in the junior, he took from third class downwards. Mrs Jay used to send us through to Mr Bruce when we were bold; he was the one to give us slaps. He had a duster hanging behind the blackboard and he would give it a swish and hit it hard against the board”.
It was a story of educational discipline that sounded very different from most in 1940s Ireland. Did Mrs Jay not realize that Mr Bruce was not actually hitting anyone? Was there a conspiracy of silence amongst the children to ensure that Mr Bruce’s sound effects continued to satisfy Mrs Jay that discipline was being maintained?
“Why did Mrs Jay send you through to Mr Bruce’s room? Why didn’t she slap you herself if she wanted you punished?”
“Because there had been complaints against her – three or four times; she didn’t touch anyone”.
“Mr Bruce was popular, then”.
“He was. He was the best teacher you could have met. He would have got anyone through their exams; there were people you would have given no chance, and he got them through”.
In a country where there was no free secondary education until 1967, Mr Bruce’s efforts must have had a profound effect upon many lives. It would have been Mr Bruce who prepared people for scholarship exams, the sort of examination where the scholarship of £20 or £30 a year made the difference to whether or not a child received a secondary education.
“Did you stay in National School until you were fourteen?”
“I left when I was thirteen. I went to secondary school’.
The school he named was two or three counties away. I tried to calculate the distance it might have been – less than a hundred miles, but on roads in rural Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s, such a journey would have taken hours. Anyway, in those days your parents didn’t drive you to school, he probably had to travel to Dublin and then get another train, or maybe there was a bus service that went across country.
Driving through the lanes away from his house, I wondered about Mr Bruce. Did the whole community know about his refusal to use violence against the children? In times when getting a thrashing at school was considered normal, acceptable even, did Mr Bruce stand out as someone strange? If people knew that Mr Bruce’s gentle ways were producing the best results, why did they tolerate the old ways for so long?