Tonight was a cracker of an evening at Tenx9. http://www.tenx9.com/events/tenx9-never-again-what-a-night-thanks-to-all-for-telling-and-listening/2018/1/17
I feel privileged to shared a story at tonight’s event. The bravery and honesty of the readers never ceases to amaze me. And while some looked back on painful times, and others to an uncertain futures, I lowered the tone with a tale from my teaching days. I hope you enjoy it, and who knows, it was a good while ago now- you may even have been one of the poor traumatised youngsters…
(A big thank you to all my lovely friends in the audience, and especially to Malachi O’Doherty who was forced to endure my driving and much confusion over parking tickets.)
Imagine you are a substitute teacher in a good grammar school in Belfast. There may be a permanent position coming up, so you find yourself in everything but the crib, trying to make a good impression. In teaching, I have learnt, it doesn’t matter how many hours you spend preparing your A-level texts, or what innovative strategies you employ to bring the GCSE poetry syllabus to life. No. You prove your worth by staying after school to run round a muddy field with the cross-country club, or by injecting some life into the tired debating society. Just accept it. If anyone is going to be hurtling over the Glenshane Pass of a frosty night in February, to watch a piss-poor production of A Streetcar Named Desire, it’s going to be you.
But, to really get ahead, you need to show initiative and organise a trip, some class of an outing that will be both informative and enjoyable. So how my heart leapt when I saw that in the year eight English textbook was a chapter devoted to the Anglo-Saxon myth Beowulf, based on a translation by our very own Seamus Heaney. And how even more serendipitous, that the QFT, my favourite cinema in Ireland if not THE ENTIRE WORLD was showing a film, of said story; AND, since it was being screened as part of their film festival it would be shown as a matinee! It appeared that the god of newly qualified teachers was shining down on me.
This was truly excellent, I thought. Indeed, why stop at one class? How terrible it would be for the others who would miss out on this edifying experience. I’d organise for all the first year classes to go. So I booked the Belfast Bus Company and organised one hundred and fifty concession tickets for the QFT. I typed the letter to the parents, collected the reply slips, counted and transferred the money. I recruited the necessary number of staff needed for the ratio of children, and left cover for my classes that afternoon. (Should you ever find yourself dithering over whether to buy the £5 bottle of wine for the English teacher at Christmas or the £20 bottle, always go for the latter. Trust me, they’ve f**king earned it.)
Finally, we boarded the buses and off we set. There was a sense of excitement in the air, as we disembarked at College Green and the little ones descended, and gathered, locust like at the QFT bar and bought them clean out of Revels and Maltesers. I looked on, with a beatific smile. This was no typical excursion to a generic multiplex with its evil blue slushies and greasy popcorn. I had organised, a truly different cultural experience for these children, one that they would never forget. In future years they would say ‘Remember when our English teacher organised the trip to a proper art-house cinema and ignited within us a passion for the arts? It was all down to her.’
In we went, and conscientious bunch that we were, the teachers all spread out round the room so we could monitor the children’s behaviour, lest any other member of the audience be disturbed. As I settled in my seat I smiled over at my friend Anne. All the hard work was done and I could, as they say, sit back enjoy the show.
I’d studied the text in university and I knew that there was a fair amount of slaughter and savagery, but I had every faith that this production, with its PG certificate, would be entirely suitable viewing for my young charges.
I was wrong. In the opening scene, marauding Danes come stampeding towards a odd-looking bearded fellow and his even odder looking young son. The son, who we come to know as Grendel, hides for his life but watches his father being thrown to his death onto the rocks below. The small boy is spared, but decides he is going nowhere without his father’s head as a keepsake. He clambers down the cliff and does a bit of light hacking, so he can obtain his ghoulish momento.
It was all very brutal and shocking. I always looked to Anne to keep me right and I stared over, alarmed. She made a hand movement as if batting away a fly. Anne thought I had a tendency to overreact at the best of times.
But more battle scenes ensued with considerable blood and gore. The small odd looking boy turns out to be, in fact a troll, and all grown up, he sets to murdering all round him to avenge his father. Beowulf, the mighty Geat warrior, comes to the aid of the Danes, who are no match for the ferocious troll. Many more heads are lopped off and men disembowelled, all in graphic detail. Small girls leave enmasse to go to the toilet for a good puke. I looked at Anne again and she smiled in a ‘We’re still all grand here’ sort of a way. I tried to catch the eye of a senior teacher but he had parked himself at the rear of the auditorium and I couldn’t see him in the dark.
It wasn’t just the violence which was shocking. The language was also very coarse indeed, and there was one deeply regrettable reference to bestiality, which I prayed went straight over the heads of the first-formers. Again, I looked at Anne, and she gesticulated as much, waving her hands over her ears. Now just in case you think I’m exaggerating, I did some googling to find reviews of the film. William Arnold of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer writes, “The film’s near-fatal flaw is its dialogue, which had to be invented wholesale from the Old English text. With more overuse of the F-word than any two Samuel L. Jackson movies, it’s a big mistake.” Indeed it was.
I looked at my watch and saw to my enormous relief that there was only about ten minutes remaining until we could leave and I could start drafting a letter of apology to the parents. But then, in a starling departure from the original text, the screenwriters decided to add a little spice. An action film just isn’t an action film without a sex scene now is it? And as the witch Selma explains to Beowulf that she has a bastard son, we get a flashback to his conception, with none other than Grendel, the troll. My year eights were innocent, but they were neither blind nor stupid. There were very audible gasps and titters.
I looked over at Anne. This time there was no reassuring smile. She shrugged and lifted her palms upwards in the sort of gesture that said, this is now in the hands of God and please let’s pray that none of the parents of these children are high up in the DUP.
I leapt from my seat and ran into the lobby. ‘I have an entire first form in that cinema and they have just watched a troll and a witch having SEX,’ I yelled at the chap on reception. He looked unperturbed. ‘Dead lice hanging off him’, as my mother-in-law would say. He reached over to a guide, then lethargically looked at his computer. ‘Ah yes,’ he said. ‘Says here it’s certificate fifteen, not a PG after all.’ To go back to the reviews, Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle says,
Beowulf & Grendel, is full of anachronistic cursing, dark humor and lots of hairy, homely, filthy-looking people. The filmmakers get their point across in about 30 minutes, leaving 70 more for severed heads and period charm.’
As I walked back into the auditorium the credits had startled to roll. Some children looked utterly delighted with themselves, others seemed a bit stunned. I had nothing left to give. I took the window seat at the front of the bus and felt its coldness beside my face. The children were in a state of high animation, although a few did stop and say ‘Are you ok Miss?’ which was rather sweet. The teachers walked up and down the aisles, showing them the QFT programme where the PG rating was clearly, indeed prominently displayed. ‘Miss would never have taken you to see that film had she know what was in it,’ I heard them say to reassure the kids.
I can safely admit that I wasn’t right for weeks afterwards. But those other teachers, if ever they were in need of alternative employment, could get careers as spin-doctors. There was not one single letter from a parent.
After school that day we sojourned to a local bar, where I consumed a glass of red wine the size of my head, in record time. It’s not everyday, children are subjected to graphic images of torture, references to bestiality and finally troll sex, all on your watch. Never again, said I, will I organise another bloody trip.