‘The Lesson’ by Roger McGough is simply ingenious. McGough is a performance poet and therefore his writings are composed in a way that will be engaging and enjoyable and also very visual and descriptive to animate the scene for the audience. He is speaking to the common, middle class, wannabe academic in a form that they can relate to and appreciate, at least on a basic level, like dumbing down Shakespeare to attract a new audience. However, he's hoping they will be inspired to study the text further or the preaching of a parable with an ordinary setting, but with a layer of moral teaching and purpose. By literally ‘acting out’ the text he can infuse the words with authorial intent through gesticulation and inflection.
Everyone will be familiar with the disillusionment and frustration at trying to teach someone who doesn’t wish to learn, whether from a parental perspective, or as an actual school teacher, fated to battle bad behaviour and disinterest to reach a goal of academic enlightenment.
The phrase ‘to teach someone a lesson’ is used a lot from some trivial misdemeanour to a global catastrophe. McGough uses the popular, comedic device of taking the words at their most literal and going to extremes. Of course, it is not socially acceptable to teach a class about violence by enacting violence. The whole concept is ridiculous and counter productive as the teacher’s goal to teach ‘a lesson one that you’ll never forget’ is destroyed by the method of education.
But the penny drops that McGough is using the teaching institution as a substitute for the legal institution of the country. This poem is actually a comment and attack on the ethical argument of capital and possibly, to a lesser extent, corporal punishment. If the country as a whole wants to put an end to criminal activity and teach the perpetrators involved a ‘lesson’, then how can they learn if the punishment literally fits the crime? Murder can not be assuaged through murder. Taking a life cannot extol the sanctity of life and teaching a nation violence and hatred against a troublesome element will only increase the usage of violence and vigilante justice for retribution.
Note that McGough describes the class members as ‘hooligans’, ‘latecomers’, ‘skives’ and general instruments of ‘chaos’. By doing this he’s ensuring that there is an understanding and even mild justification to the teacher’s bloody massacre. If the victims of this atrocity were innocent and good, of course there would be outrage, but the outrage still stands when the students are delinquents and thought to be beyond hope. This drives home the idea that you can’t have one rule for the good and one for the bad, a double-standard based on upbringing, prosperity or position and that violence should never be tolerated or justified.
The students are synonymous with criminals and thus the reader is being trapped into admitting that criminals need to be educated and that they are potentially ignorant of the reach of their crimes.
Another reason that McGough sets this little scene in the metaphor of a classroom is possibly because he doesn’t want to belatedly provoke hostility from people in power. It is as if the students are representative of criminals, then the school teacher is representative of a judge and the headmaster of the whole judicial system – people in power and positions of respect that have been entrusted with the safety and rehabilitation of the populace. The headmaster may even be the government, who turns a blind eye and discreetly encourages proceedings.
A related point of note is that the teacher throttles a boy with his bare hands, garrotes a girl and uses knives or swords. All of these modi operandi are up close and personal, so even the remote judges and barristers are getting their hands dirty. They can’t claim that they are not directly responsible, even though in law courts they don’t administer the fatal blow. The shot gun and grenade on helpless teenagers is excessive, like shooting fish in a barrel and like killing a man who is already incarcerated and off the streets.
As for the poem itself, as already mentioned the words are extremely visual and graphic firstly to shock and instill that sense of indigence and secondly to engage and help entrance the audience; to provoke their imagination. In addition, using action and violence causes a macabre curiosity in the inquisitive brain, which is why people always stop to watch at the scene of an accident or live cathartically through the thrill and danger of aggressive, heavily armed actors on screen. Examples of this visual imaginary include the visceral connotations of garroting, ‘hacked his way’, ‘collapsed like rubber dinghies’, ‘put the gun to his temple and fired’ and ‘blood on every chair’.
The language is succinct and brokers no argument like the people in power justify their means with the ‘will of God’ that cannot be attested. There is a deranged, matter of fact-ness and coldness about the whole proceedings that makes the scene more psychotic and more ridiculous to contemplate which again further highlights the author’s views on capital punishment and what is makes of the public executioners.
It should, however, be noted that McGough is not without compassion. He understands that the judicial system and the teacher mean well which is why he uses a situation that every teacher would be sympathetic to. Their goal is to make a no tolerance stand that will help by teaching a ‘lesson you’ll never forget’, but this reasoning is seriously flawed if no one is alive to learn.