It’s over 50 years ago, now. We were approaching the Easter holidays, and my mom asked me what I was going to do about my Leaving Exam. With about 7 weeks, or just over, to go to the exam, I hadn’t much of an answer.
I was good at Latin and English, because I enjoyed them. But the other subjects were a nuisance; something to be endured, or preferably avoided, while I attended to important matters like listening to the Stan Kenton, Gerry Mulligan, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and my hero at that time, Gene Krupa. If those names mean nothing to you, they
were a tiny few of the musicians around whom my world circled. So intense was my interest in nearly all kinds of Jazz, that if I wasn’t listening to it, talking about it, or thinking of it in some form, I considered the time being wasted.
So, back to my mom’s question; what was I going to do about my leaving cert? For an hour or two, the question hung idly in my mind. I wasn’t really concerned. And then, and then, for some reason beyond my understanding, I caught a breath, and I held it, as a wave of alarm washed through me.
I realized, that on the amount of study to which I’d applied myself, up to that moment, my chances of passing an exam in any of the subjects other than the two I’ve mentioned, amounted to very, very, little.
Dread seeped through me. Fear, fanned by a creative imagination, caught light and flamed into something approaching an emotional conflagration.
It was as if the continuous barrage of parental invective over the year was suddenly accumulating into a pointed, gathering force that was hell bent on swamping me in a tsunami of guilt, fear, uncertainty and self-doubt.
To this day, I can hear my mother’s sad and frequent laments; ‘What in God’s name is the matter with you?’, ‘What are you going to do?’, ‘Why can’t you be like everyone else?’, ‘I don’t know what’ll become of you!’, and, in times of severe distress, ‘Where did I go wrong?’
I thank whoever my God is that I’d always had the wit to see that this was a rhetorical question and so I refrained from any kind of answer.
As this new experience was threatening to suck what energy there was from my existence, I realized I’d wandered, without thinking, up to the attic in the top of the house. Up here, I felt less threatened, less vulnerable, had the incipient nudges of normality returning. And this was my good luck, as I was about to read something that could so easily have been scanned, vaguely understood, and promptly dismissed.
And another thing kept the butterflies in my stomach flying in order, and that was the fact that I’d never intended not to study. I’d always been in accord with the idea of getting a good result in the Leaving Exam. But apart from the Latin and English, I’d just never got around to burdening myself with the ritual of application to any other subjects.
The attic in our house in those days was, to me, a wonderful place. On the fifth floor, it had a broad window in the roof which looked out across the town, to the river Slaney, set between the tower of Selskar Abbey and the top of the pear tree in the corner of our garden.
The wall at one end of the room was covered top to bottom by bookshelves, each shelf full to the edge. I was browsing through the rows of old cloth-bound books, taking out one at a time, sniffing here and there that fausty old smell that is peculiar to aged books, when I came upon one with an inscription on the second page.
The writing was in faded, sepia tinted ink, copperplate style, slanting to the right. ‘From P.B. H., to P. B. H. October, 1914’, it said. I knew those initials. They were my late father’s. He would have been twenty in 1914, three years older than I was now.
He’d died in 1950, twelve years previously, aged 56, after a life of toil, effort, long days and hours, and I’m very pleased to say, some notable success.
Flicking through the book, a heavily underlined paragraph arrested my attention. The words underlined read, ‘The greatest things in daily life are achieved, not so much by the extraordinary powers of genius and intellect, so much as by the extraordinary application of simple means, and ordinary powers, with which we’re all more or less endowed’
I read it again. And again. And then again. And yet again. I kept on reading it, over and over. Then I found myself saying it, out loud, as I was reading it. Then I found I was saying it without having to look at the words, as the idea, the truth of it, began to take hold and imprint itself on my eagerly assimilating, hungry young mind. It was growing on me. Then in me. The idea and the fact of the words were taking shape in me. They were becoming my truth.
‘Extraordinary application’. How simple. What a revelation. That’s all it took. To do anything. Extraordinary application. And I knew, I really knew, that I could, should I wish, apply myself extraordinarily. That was all it took. Extraordinary application. I read the underlined words again.
I had seven weeks, I thought, and a few days. About sixty days altogether. And nights. I needed five subjects, including the dreaded compulsory Irish. I had two in which I knew I could do fairly well, even excel. All I needed was three more, and I’d probably pass the Leaving. If I could pass the Leaving, I knew I would exonerate myself of the laziness that had come to represent me in most peoples’ minds. But more attractive to me was the prospect of confounding those who knew me, who had come to despair of me, and ultimately, I reluctantly admitted, dismiss me.
I started that very evening. And continued. Day in, day out. And most of the nights. I swotted, studied, revised and recited. I beamed onto everything concerning the subjects needed. Nothing else. I became a mental magnet for anything related to those subjects. My reticular activating system kicked in and sucked up relevant details, dismissed the irrelevant. On it went, day and night. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Sleep was brief, irregular, deep and refreshing.
The concentration was fierce, but soon levelled out at a constant and all absorbing rate, drawing in facts and figures and perceptions and retaining them with a simple clarity. The energy was self-perpetuated, boundless in its awareness of what could be, was being, achieved.
I never let up.
My poor confused mother, previously critical of my indolence, now fussed and worried over me, as I read, studied, wrote and applied myself in this frenzy of academic endeavor.
But I was taking it all in my stride. I knew, I just knew, that all I was doing what I knew, I, or anyone for that matter, could do when necessary. Extraordinary application. That’s all it was. A flurried show of extraordinary application.
Time flies when you’re that busy. The Leaving came. And it went.
Later that summer, lodging in London, I got the results in the post.
My mother wrote at length in surprise and pleasure. It was the talk of her acquaintances. So now there was hope for me. Maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t lost to the sensible path of convention. I heard about other boys, expected to do very well, who hadn’t, and some of them would have to repeat. They became the objects of bigoted criticism.
‘God’, wailed their confused and scornful parents. ‘If even HE could do it, why couldn’t you?’ Many were lost for words.
But in this case, I wasn’t. Nor, where ever he was, I thought, was my dad, P.B. H.
We knew. Two words. Extraordinary application.