Both parent and teacher could do with some life lessons in this new Irish play centred around a parent-teacher meeting.
When you think of your school days, what comes up? What thoughts, what feelings? Just the sight of the child sized chairs and tables is enough to give Mum, Donna, the “Heebee jeebies. Even still”. Whilst Dad, and recently separated husband Brian, “Couldn’t wait to leave – no offence”. But here they are back in the classroom, called in to discuss their child Jayden’s learning difficlti- no wait, that should be differences, learning differences. All three of them still have lessons to learn. Even grown-ups, even teachers can break the rules and get it wrong, in and outside of the classroom.
All three of them still have lessons to learn.
Class extends beyond the classroom to the rules of the outer world. The classroom comes to represent a microcosm of the world outside, where there will always be those who are top of the class and those ostracised in the remedial groups. Brian and Donna are determined that Jayden is not going to be labelled a ‘problem’ at the age of 9, a label they are scared will stick, as they feel it did to them. McCafferty’s authoritative academic language of “percentiles”, “assessments” and a dreaded academic psychologist does nothing to reassure them and instead they feel patronised. Through their eyes, it’s as though he is holding the keys to their son’s future and mockingly dangling them out of reach.
Under further scrutiny is the boundary between parental and teaching responsibility. Where does Mr McCafferty’s involvement in the lives of his students, begin and end? At what point does he take a step, or indeed a leap, too far? Writers Iseult Golden and David Horan leave it up to us to decide, there are certainly no right or wrong answers and no gold stars up for grabs, but as strong words and stronger threats of lawsuits are thrown across the room, the legal responsibility and pressure teachers are bound by is never far from the classroom.
the legal responsibility and pressure teachers are bound by is never far from the classroom.
In Golden Horan’s non-chronological plot structure, we are also prithee to the after-school remedial club, sensitively renamed the ‘homework club’. The arguing parents become bickering children in adult’s bodies. I.e. Brian becomes a mini Jayden, and Donna another struggling pupil. Such a choice suggests explicitly that the apple never falls far from the tree, that his future as a frustrated adult cast aside, starts now. It is in direct conflict with McCafferty’s view that times have changed, but his resolute faith is chipped and crumbling.
The plot structure does allow for some childish fun and observational comedic moments (I suspect there are many teachers in the audience tonight – the laughs are a little too knowing) but it is not without its problems. Giving us access to points in time beyond the centrepiece of the meeting removes a large degree of the high-stakes plot tension that develops.
The high stakes themselves are also a sticking point, sensationalist, headlines stuff. The final stand-off that is reached serves to position McCafferty’s middle class educated authority in opposition to the ‘problem’ parents, but in a lock that threatens to engulf the much subtler discussions that are at work.
Ultimately, it is a play which asks complex questions of our moral and social compass, unresolvable in 90 minutes. More succinctly we are asked to consider, does school really teach us knowledge or just life lessons in how to fit in, in class?
Traverse 2, Aug 19, 21-26, Times Vary.