My parents and an aunt who lived with us were all educators in the public school system, so I have been in every room McShane describes in his raging dissertation of public education. I have seen the ‘Teacher’s Lounge’ which McShane describes as the ‘cave within the school’, with its broken vending machine, one microwave which works and one which does not, and a table nobody sits at because at any given moment a shower of septic rain from the Boy’s bathroom upstairs pours down through the ceiling from the heavens.
The through-line of the story is Shamrock himself as he charts the way through the Hall of Fools, through passing vignettes, moments of absurdity, irony, pieces of puzzles put in backwards…and he comes to a rousing conclusion: Spiderman pees, and it rains in the sun. For those who think I’ve spoiled the ending, let us just say that McShane’s book has no ending, even in the resolute last words of the book, “Stupidity consists in the desire to conclude.” – Flaubert. Hall of Fools is more an exploration than linear story, but it is also many stories. It is a meditation full of beginnings, middles, and ends but ultimately it is the world according to Shamrock McShane’s will and power to illuminate secrets behind the fair-weather fog-scrim of education’s phony painted face.
This is a former Teacher of the Year in the known Center of the Universe who, near the same time as he received this accolade, was producing a film with his genius film-maker son called, The Votive Pit--a controversial expose-meets-fever-dream in which the soft-center of public education is revealed to be the same sort of acid one might find inside the menacing creatures of Alien, Aliens, Alien III, Alien IV – Resurrection, Aliens Meet Predator, and Prometheus. In this nightmare, it is not the student bringing the proverbial gun on campus, it is the teacher. Shocking? Yes. But McShane should not be at all confused with a shock-artist; that would be a disingenuous dismissal of a messenger far more complex and nuanced. The Beatles’ Looking Through a Glass Onion does not even describe the half if it. McShane is fractal; a multi-layered truthsayer both in the contemporary conventional sense of telling the truth such as it is, but also in the sense of Frank Herbert’s Dune; ie. Defined as “Anyone who can detect truth when it is being told.” In other words, like the court jester, McShane’s truth bites the ass of the king and our writer risks all to tell it, unvarnished for the betterment of the land. Hall of Fools is a ferocious bitch-slap, a wakeup call, a rooster in the living room, and grand rope bells in the church tower. McShane is the friend who points out the booger in your nose, but do not expect him to pick it out for you; that’s your job. You’ll soon discover it’s a big one, both job and booger. Welcome to public education.
In Hall of Fools, McShane is not afraid to reveal himself as well as his ‘comrades in arms.’ He lives in his home ‘cave’ with his wife and children and must deal not only with affairs of academic education but also with the benign mortal tasks: demands and requirements of the kids, Homer & Ollie, computers that lose their minds, church, and relocating Macy the dog. We join in his triumphs and pain. In and about the classroom, McShane is not afraid to reveal the racism, economic and socio-economic partisanship, and P.T.A. word-dust worthy of a good case of pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis. Did you just use that word in a review, Tom? No. No, I didn’t. I thought I saw it. What does it mean? Didn’t you learn that in school? To seem smart?
Hall of Fools is resplendent, replete with quotes from such luminaries as Montaigne, Dante, Murakami, Hemmingway, Mailer, Camus, and more. These quotes, presented in the context of Hall of Fools take on a peculiar cognitive dissonance in “Shamrock Land’—entirely other meanings arise and combine from these quotes in counterpoint to the narrative with equal parts philosophy, theatre history, disambiguation of language, and points of pure unadulterated fact tossed in just for the sake of irony. This is not a book one reads so much as much as experiences, and it provides for the reader qualities of fun, horror, a bit of screaming, Spiderman peeing, the quest for knowledge, the passion for learning and teaching, and ultimately, cathartically, unspoken hope.