‘MR Walsh said Goodbye.’ Four little words in my homework diary, dated Wednesday, Oct 9, 1985, that announced one of the most significant events in my teenage years.
Mr Walsh — today my friend John Walsh — was my science teacher at Sacred Heart in Turner’s Cross in Cork, but he was much more than that. He was the man who taught me that the world is not a fair or just place, but any one of us can fight to change that.
He introduced us to organisations like CND and Amnesty International, and encouraged us to set up a Justice & Peace group at school — a place where we learned that education and our relatively privileged lives were experiences that children in may other countries could only dream of. The story of the Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai, shot recently by the Taliban, brought it all back home to me — how lucky we are to have such easy access to an education here in the West.
And when John Walsh left us on that autumn day in Leaving Cert — in characteristically altruistic fashion, to work in Africa — he left us all with a much better sense of right and wrong, and a confidence in our own abilities to try to change the unbalanced world we live in.
So when I took up my first reporting job in a newspaper just three years later, I quickly found myself drawn to the more personal stories in local journalism — a toxic dump that was making local residents sick; an elderly, disabled woman denied relief from a rat-infested council house; a transsexual being ostracised by her own community simply for being ‘different’.
There’s no doubt that those early years spent listening to John Walsh’s stories of injustice and fear from Nicaragua, South Africa or Venezeula were to have a huge influence on my thinking, and my career. I left several editors bemused by my delight in being sent to courts, council meetings and health board committees — ‘markings’ seen by my colleagues as the graveyard of journalism.
But it was in those very rooms that I found the real stories of Irish life — the heart-breaking tales of real people battling an often-unfair system alone, and the very obvious abuse of power by those placed in positions of influence by the same ‘real’, but often naïve, people. I was under no illusion that I was very lucky to be able to observe the world from both sides, and report on it as best I could.
So when the authors of Making a Difference — Stories of Inspirational Teachers asked me to contribute to the book, I didn’t hesitate in nominating John Walsh as the teacher who inspired me the most. And when I received a copy of the book, I wasn’t surprised to find my experiences were echoed by former students of equally inspiring teachers.
Philip O’Callaghan and Padraig Lawlor have compiled a wonderful collection of voices from the worlds of politics, journalism, the arts, and education itself — all proclaiming how important one particular educator was in their lives.
There are stories from today’s students too — and a delightful entry from 10-year-old Jordan Browne from Co Dublin who recalls his Irish and maths teacher Morgan Doran. “I think he made us all feel good about ourselves all the time and really helped us if we had trouble with anything … and he never got impatient.” What more could a student ask for?
Brendan O’Carroll tells the hilarious tale of Billy Flood, the young teacher who couldn’t be intimated by the tough boys in his Finglas school. “I took one look at this baby-faced, horn-rimmed eejit and thought ‘He won’t last long’,” recalls O’Carroll of Flood’s first day. But he was wrong. Flood set up the class’s first library in an old Tayto box, and from that Carroll discovered his love of reading and, later, writing. If you don’t like Mrs Brown’s Boys, blame Billy, says O’Carroll: “Flood made me do it!”
Economist Jim Power can date his love of finance to his business teacher Fergus Dunne at De La Salle College in Waterford. “He clearly had a passion for the subject and taught it in a very user-friendly manner,” recalls Power.
TV3’s Colette Fitzpatrick describes Sr Anne Marie at the Ursulines in Thurles as “truly exceptional”. “She was very forward-thinking and encouraged us to not do everything by the book, but instead to interpret things for ourselves.” A wonderful grounding for a future news reporter.
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn attributes his love of English to teacher Seamus Grace in Blackrock College who diverted from the syllabus to allow them to broaden their knowledge of the language.
And former Minister Éamon Ó Cuiv, a pupil of Oatlands College in Dublin’s Mount Merrion, says his love of the Irish language can be traced back to a Mr O’Driscoll.
Brother Mathias Comyns taught businessman Michael Conlon in the 1960s at Pres in Cork City, and had a profound influence on him. “Over the years I have often thought of him, and in my mind and imagination, I have transported myself back to his classroom for inspiration, for a moral check, for constraint of approach, to find humility, to help myself simplify something I am making complex, to structure sentences, paragraphs and reports, but mostly to touch the passion of a subject.”
Likewise, I have often transported myself back to our Justice & Peace group which met in the draughty old prefab after school, and the stories we heard of brutal regimes, teenage soldiers and children orphaned by unjust wars.
And I hope that some teacher, in some class today, is telling their students about the harrowing story of Malala Yousufzai, and inspiring them to want to change our sometimes cruel world.
* Making a Difference — Stories of Inspirational Teachers, published by The Super Generation, €15, from * www.thesupergeneration.com