The School by Brendan James Murray is a thought-provoking, well-written account of a year in a high school told from a teacher’s perspective. Brendan James Murray is an English teacher, teaching at the same state high school he attended.
The school is in an area where many students have issues and their families are struggling. Although it’s on the coast, this is not a story of well-provided for students from mansions with ocean views. It’s a more gritty reality of life in Australian state schools today.
The book is focused on students and their stories. Although we do learn about Murray’s own childhood and the problems he dealt with. Almost instantly I cared about the students and wanted to know more of their stories, and how they handled the pressure of school. Was Murray able to help and to be honest would they all survive the year?
Murray introduces us to several students who have widely differing problems. There’s Claire who suffers from depression and low esteem, Teagan and Jada who hide under heavy makeup, Grace who has a very low level of literacy but due to a technicality does not qualify for assistance. Plus there’s Wambui from war-torn Kenya, her story puts worrying about day-to-day small issues into perspective.
Several of the stories of the students are more detailed than others like the bullying of Tessa by Lonnie. Bullying is one of the major concerns Murray addresses. He was bullied badly as a student and so is empathetic and determined to do the best he can to help students like Tessa. In doing so he unintentionally causes ripples that affect other students.
One major storyline is that of Kelvin, an athlete who has had cancer, sadly the cancer returns, and Murray provides us with harrowing details of Kelvin’s treatment, how his fellow students stay in touch with him and how he copes when he tries to return to school.
Other students’ stories address domestic violence and mental health.
Murray also relates stories from his childhood, the struggles he had with mental health, and being seriously bullied. Also, he pays tribute to Liam Davison and his wife Frankie who were killed when Malaysian Airlines flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine in 2014. Liam was a teacher who inspired and assisted Murray as a teenager.
At times Murray moves away from the story of the students to critique the education system, its rule boundness, and its lack of creativity. He has serious concerns about the Victorian ATAR system, the pressure it puts on students, and the unfair advantages it gives students from private schools. I have to admit that this area while important didn’t enthrall me, and I was keen to get back to the students’ stories.
It’s in the students’ stories that this book shines, it shows us just what a difference a great teacher can make and just how worthwhile the teaching profession is. This is certainly a book I will recommend to parents and teachers, and maybe it should be compulsory reading for student teachers.
Thank you to Beauty and Lace Book Club and Picador for the chance to read this powerful book.
A selection of our Beauty and Lace Club Members are reading The School by Brendan James Murray. You can read their comments below, or add your own review.
ISBN: 978-1-76098-243-0 / Pan MacMillan
I was brought up on the classics in the UK but now I’m a Pozzie (British by Birth, Australian by choice) I’m enjoying discovering Australian works, we have some terrific storytellers. I’ve been a member of a local book club for a decade or so and that has also widened my choice of reading. I agree wholeheartedly with Stephen King: “Books are a uniquely portable magic”