Last week, my youngest daughter struggling with an essay she was writing for school asked me, “What is irony?”
I struggled to define the notion but was able to provide her with several examples: namely the lyrics to the Alanis Morrisette song.
“Imagine an old man had worked his whole life to keep his head above water,” I offered like some great mountaintop guru, “He buys a lottery ticket and wins £100 million. The next day- boom- he drops dead. That’s irony.”
I know, I know. The pedagogists out there are screaming upon reading this: “An example is not a definition- schoolboy error!” In reality the best definition of irony is using an opposite to covey the truth. But equally one could apply that to sarcasm and sarcasm is something that percolates deep into the British sense of humour.
Once upon a time, I was a teacher. In fact I was a teacher in the school we now live next door to. At the time (mid 1980s) I was living in the East End and commuting to the six-storey Edwardian school building now adjacent. A quarter of a century later I am living here in the heart of theatre land, in the shadow of the six storey Edwardian school and commuting to a school in the East End. Ironic.
Memory affords me the comfort of thinking I was a very good teacher. I was well liked by parents, colleagues and most importantly, the children I taught. I had a reputation as a strict disciplinarian but with a cheeky sense of humour. My love for sport permeated my work and my pupils would frequently find themselves with me on the rooftop playground; six storey above the streets of Theatre Land. There we would play football or cricket in the confines of the school’s zenith. There we would have to be perpetually carefully not to let the ball rise above the twelve foot high iron railed fence that ran around the perimeter of the roof; lest it carried over the edge of the school and came crashing down on passers-by.
On occasion the zeal of the game would supersede the twelve foot rule. At those times the ball would indeed fly high in the air and we would all stop and stare as the moment slipped into slow-motion action. It would curl outwards, hanging in the wind with just a hint that it might safely return to the rooftop pitch before disappearing over the side of the building. The unrelenting background noise of the city would never afford us the chance to hear the ball as it hit the street below. Indeed the Twelve Feet Rule specified that whichever child had last touched the ball- sending it on its fateful journey onto the street below, had to accompany me downstairs on the retrieving trip.
I cannot begin to count the number of times I made that long journey down and then back up the six flights of stairs between the rooftop playground and the street below. Each time I envisaged reaching the street below and finding a passerby bleeding and dazed, holding the tennis ball that had plummeted unannounced from sixty feet above. Each time, thankfully, I would reach the street with the offending pupils and we would find the ball laying harmlessly in the gutter.
Twenty five years have passed. Those ten year olds of the day are now in their mid-30s and have children of their own. I see them as I walk the streets of my neighbourhood and I am heartened by the fact that they take the time to stop and chat and share their memories of primary school.
Last week, I walked out the street door of our block of flats and immediately sought to negotiate my way across the street. I paused outside the neighbouring building; the same six storey Edwardian school where I had started my teaching career all those years ago. A young man with a child stopped me, calling across the pavement, “Sir, sir.” I stopped and immediately recognised a former pupil. He was twenty years older than when I had known him but the facial characteristics allowed me to immediately place him. If further proof of his identity was necessary, the young boy at his side was a carbon copy of his father in his youth. He even had the same small, John Lennon style glasses. I stared at the child as I exchanged small talk with his father, eventually having to offer the observation, “Your boy looks exactly like you did at that age.”
At this point the father employed his son into the conversation, explaining who I was and how we knew each other. The child’s face changed, he became genuinely enthusiastic about our exchange now as I began to replay stories of his father when he was a child. The father embellished by sharing his memories of me and the great games of football, rounders or cricket we would enjoy. “This man was MY teacher, “he explained to his son, “And he was a bully.”
Bully. I am certain that is what he said. It was that single word in the flow of conversation that is half heard. That single word only partially digested but repeated in the sinus and windpipe, foul and lingering on the palate.
The child heard it too. I saw it in his face which melted from enthusiastic to forlorn. He looked up at me disapprovingly. Reflected in the lens of his John Lennon style glasses I saw where we were. Glinting in the refracted, disappointing, weak, London summer sun I saw the rooftop playground in the child’s lens. We were standing in the spot where the ball would come bounding down as it met the street side pavement.
So it was. My warm and comfortable images of a beloved teacher deeply seeded in the minds of hundreds of ex-pupils evaporated. I was startled. The image was one I trusted to keep me warm in the cold nights of old age.
I looked back into the face of the father. He winked and smirked simultaneously. The Brits say they take great delight in playing the fact Americans can not read the sarcasm in their humour, the irony in their daily existence. For the most part I can. But as the pair tottered off into the swarming London pavements I wanted, but couldn’t, call after to ask if the bully tag was serious.
I stared up at the rooftop playground wondering what had hit me; just as the passers-by must have done in those mid 1980s days. The word bully had dropped on me from high, glancing off that part of my brain that holds memories, or at least holds the lies we tell ourselves to keep ourselves sane. It hurt. I touched my head and looked at fingers checking for blood. Six storey up someone had broken the Twelve Feet Rule; the one that keeps things contained and safe and controllable.
Oh the irony that the conversation happened in that very spot.
Keep the Faith,