So many children, some memorable others unremarkable pass through teachers’ hands in the course of their careers ………colourful high fliers and quiet, grey little people who do what they can with the minimum of fuss and whose non academic talents simmer patiently below the surface of their defensiveness, just waiting to be acclaimed and valued. The truth is, we, as parents and teachers, often do not see the wood for the trees. We are usually too busy, too harassed to really look, to really listen to our charges…..too busy with forward planning to deal with the present, too busy marking and grading what has never been properly learned, too busy pushing to arrive at a given point, to smell the roses along the way.
We have so much potential to reveal, so many doors of opportunity to unlock, so much curiosity to channel, so much wonder to instil, so many values to uphold, so much motivation to generate…………so much cynicism, apathy and greed to eradicate…..and, we protest feebly, there just isn’t the time…………….
The world has changed since I began teaching in 1961.
I had forty five pupils in my first class. I taught reading, arithmetic, the skill of handwriting, English language including spelling, dictation, interpretation, composition, sentence construction, grammar, poetry, drama and speech training. Add to this history, geography, nature study, art, sewing, handwork, music and RE (which included the teaching of Latin). We managed to organise school outings, concerts and the annual sports day. We were given a syllabus of work which we were expected to cover by the end of each school year in both academic and religious studies and required to keep a record of all work achieved. We managed the balance of our own curriculum within class and abided by arrangements made by the school management for sewing and handwork when we would be involved with children other than those from our own class. We organised and prepared our own materials, displayed the children’s work, operated within less than lavish budgets yet every child had his own space, desk, chair, sharpened pencil and ruler. Books, some the worse for wear, and jotters were taken home to be ‘backered’ resulting in an explosion of newspaper, wallpaper and brown wrapping paper when it was ‘Reading books out!’ time.
We had our weekly , monthly and end of term tests (some of them in real ink!) annual Religious Inspection and of course there was always HMI lurking on the horizon. I am not ashamed to say that I actually enjoyed my work. Of course I complained about this and that, of course I loved the holidays, of course there were difficult children and teachers, but incidences of indiscipline and anarchy were almost unheard of, for parents were generally supportive and the majority of teachers were really caring, dedicated personalities who alone, nurtured their little clients for one, maybe two or maybe more years. Teachers had, first and foremost, exemplary training. They were given responsibility for the learning and well being of all their children and the authority to create a disciplined and positive ethos. Support and advice were readily available from older, more experienced colleagues – to be listened to or not (!) but who nonetheless were given their ‘place’. It was hard work but it seems to me now (although nostalgia’s not what it used to be !) that it was a much more joyful and less frustrating profession altogether. ‘Initiative’ was not then a bad word. Respect, rightly, had to be earned from children, colleagues and parents alike and in the main, the system worked. It seems back then, there were real ‘characters’ in teaching…………people who seemed to exude wisdom, common sense and bags of timely good humour…..which seemed always to work a treat with both recalcitrant children and difficult, uncooperative parents. eg.
Angry parent: ‘Oor Mary said that you called her a lazy lump an’….’
Teacher: ‘Can I just stop you right there and give you a piece of advice…..Don’t you believe everything Mary says about me and I wont believe everything she says about you…….now was there anything else?’
Angry parent: ‘Whit’s she been sayin’ aboot me?!’
Teacher: ‘Don’t you worry about a thing, all your secrets are safe with me….’
Mary’s mammy was suddenly lost for words…… needless to say she never darkened that classroom doorway again…………
Dear Mrs.Johnston, I remember her with great fondness…..as do many of her former pupils….. including Joe….I loved listening to her tales and anecdotes……
‘What about the present company, Mosie, shouldn’t you be listening to them…?. …..they’ve made an effort for you after all……..why don’t you join in…….or just listen……. properly………..come on………try harder……..’
The evening progressed pleasantly but I was still relieved when it was over. As I climbed thankfully into bed later that night I felt so deeply bereft of his company and so sick and tired of my own. Speaking his name softly and sadly into the empty darkness, I lulled myself to sleep.
Anne has a modest little plan that will change my life. Unlike God’s, this plan reveals the date, the time and the place and, as it involves an earlier rise than I am in my present situation accustomed to, I acknowledge that it will be effective from the word go ….provided I can talk myself into getting up! Pauline, Anne and I must be at the appointed venue in Glasgow before nine in the morning. I write it on my calendar. I write everything on my calendar. I have to – but this is not an age thing….this is what every efficient, organised, sensible person does……….except, when you stand back and look at my calendar, the silent cacophony of doodles, squiggles and illegible scribble reveals a person devoid of any or all of these splendid aforementioned qualities. It deserves to be hung …..beside that controversial work of art ‘The Unmade Bed’ where it wouldn’t look at all out of place. When I flick through the pages, as I often do, trying to turn back the clock of my life I can see clearly where the efficient organisation of my existence stops and the frenetic episode of my life begins………
The month of May – Our Lady’s month. The month of May altars and burning candles, of bluebells packed tightly into jam jars; the month of ‘Devotions’, Mysteries of the Rosary and Benediction; the month of fresher mornings, longer evenings and the promise of long summer holidays just a few busy weeks away………but this was to be a May different from all others………..
I smooth out the page of my Monet calendar and read again the first eight days of May 2002…….. (Wed.) school, (Thurs.) Cathie, (Fri.)Biggar, (Sat.)Twins’ Birthday Party, (Sun.) Cornhill House, (Mon.)at home, (Tues.) school, (Wed. )school………..all neat, precise, quiet, legible entries….then from Thurs 9th to the end of the page it screams hospital ! hospital ! hospital !…….. asterisked and underlined and scrawled over and through a joyful Fortieth Anniversary Celebration and special Thanksgiving Mass planned for the 11th and 30th respectively……man’s plans…….not God’s…….
On the Wednesday evening he came to pick me up from school as arranged and we drove home together……for the last time. As we stopped the car I remember wishing that we had gone to the Clydeside for our coffee just as we had done the previous evening. We decided however that we wouldn’t bother since our own kettle was within singing distance and we were glad to be home, besides we had a busy weekend ahead. We talked about going to Mass in Glasgow Cathedral the following day – Ascension Thursday – and afterwards to buy the new shirt for Saturday’s big date – the Fortieth Anniversary Celebration of his Operatic Society, where our life together had begun.
I say ‘his’ society, because it was, even after he had retired and was replaced. Over the years, he watched the society and its members change …..sometimes for the good and sometimes not. He had had the pleasure of working with extremely gifted and talented singers, actors and instrumentalists. He shared the plaudits with some fine producers, stage managers and backstage crews. It being an amateur society, he had, of course to take the ‘rough’ with the smooth – frustrating for him but a source of great humour to many of us. He was never happier than when discussing the highs and lows of the company with equally passionate people. He held strong views about many things……football, politics, education, but he was passionate about music. Well he was a dedicated musician, for God’s sake – yes for God’s sake and for man’s! He was passionate and punctual ……. never late for Mass or Devotions, weddings or funerals, operas, concerts or rehearsals – never. He was the director, the conductor, the motivator, the tyrant, the insatiable perfectionist. He set the pace, brought us in, moved us along, slowed us down, made us sing – I mean really sing, till the hair on the back of the neck stood thrillingly to attention. He had such fervour, such commitment, such high standards and expectations with regards to musical performances…… and he looked for others to share his zeal. Some did, some did not and some never understood that he only ever had the good of the society at heart.
In 1975, he directed the society in a winning performance of ‘The Gypsy Baron’ for which the society received the Waterford Festival’s International Trophy – a competition to which he had been introduced many years before the inception of ‘his own’ company. So it was a dream come true for him. Many of the people who were participants in that winning performance are involved, still, with the society, in fact a few of them are founder members of the club. I only wish my father had been alive to enjoy the success of it all. He died just weeks beforehand.
No one would argue that a Fortieth Anniversary is a significant milestone, particularly I would say, for those who were fully involved at the outset. I can only write here that Hugh was ready and willing and excited at the prospect of becoming fully involved once more – perhaps by assisting with the preparations and planning……perhaps by providing some historical data …… perhaps he could conduct a chorus or two… perhaps they would ask him for some reminiscences….. perhaps he could organise a ‘performance’ by those of us who had been in those early shows and were now retired from the stage…. …but not from life ……perhaps they would send him a ‘special invitation’ ……..perhaps…..perhaps ….perhaps.
But there was nothing. He was so bitterly disappointed.
Our disappointment was exacerbated when we read the local press reports hailing the society’s significant anniversary, and failing to give Hugh credit for its finest hour. The last straw.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ we said to each other. But it did.
…to be continued