Not In Good Conscience

A conscience clause for teachers, now that’s a good one.

When I was in school, at the age of fourteen, I was already struggling to come to terms with my sexuality. An all-boys school in the late 1980s, it was never going to be the sort of place that it would be easy to be gay.

The English teacher I had for the Intercert was a tall thin Kerryman in his fifties, with a balding head, a thin black mustache, and fearsome reputation amongst the pupils, not a man to be trifled with. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, and was well known to have lashed out at times physically.

One day we were studying Silas Marner. He would select a pupil from the class in turn to read out loud a page or two from the book. Given that the novel in question, a grim and bleak tale of misery, poverty and woe, was published in 1861, some of the words had, of course, shifted in meaning over time.

On this day in question, one of the words we encountered, describing one of the very few & rare happy moments for the protagonist, was naturally the word ‘gay’. And, what with it being a class of boys all in their early teens, the inevitable nervous giggling started up.

He stopped the reader, knowing what they were laughing at.

“The word ‘gay’”, he declared, launching into a diatribe worthy of a mid-century preacher delivering a blistering sermon of fire & brimstone, “used to mean something different, one that meant ‘happy’, or ‘joyful’. But it has been twisted & perverted by being used for and by homosexuals. It used to be something pure, something innocent. But now it has been corrupted by degenerates, distorted from something wholesome. Now it is used to describe deviants, and the behavior of deviants!”

He continued on in this vein for several minutes. Some of the boys in the class could hardly contain their sniggering at the number of times he repeated the word ‘gay’. He wasn’t to be deterred though, he was in full stride, and wasn’t going to stop until he had gotten the entirety of his point across to us, namely that homosexuals were wholly despicable & unnatural, and he despised them for a great many things. Not least, the violation of the sanctity of his chosen subject, the English language.

Eventually, having been served sufficient food for thought in this regard, we were allowed to return to the reading, and the class ended.

I now know for a fact that there were at least three of us in his class who directly felt the impact of his words, and his hatred. To have a figure of responsibility, someone who both demanded & commanded our respect, proclaim with such disdain & rage that we were sick and perverted, that was a horrible and fearful experience for a confused fourteen year-old child to be put through.

Knowing that this was how people felt about this whole ‘gay’ thing, that made me even more determined not to be one. Not to be the subject of all the jokes, not to be pushed around for being perceived as weak or weird, or beaten up constantly and mercilessly.

Knowing that there was absolutely no support to be found from any of the teachers, that made me resolute in my decision not to be gay.

And just look at how well that worked out for me!

Today, reading about the “Teachers for No” group, fills me with pity for all of their students, that once again, the previous generation’s hangups, obsessions & neuroses are being passed on to the next generation.

I’m also fairly sure that the same English teacher, if he were still working today, would be front in line at the gates of the Dáil, arm in arm with his fellow conscience clause objectors.

Then again, maybe not. On occasion, some people have been known to change over time.

Just like words.

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