Teaching is one of the most rewarding careers that one can pursue, for multiple reasons. The best reason is the students. As a secondary teacher, having the opportunity to engage with teenagers every day is enriching, stimulating, fascinating, occasionally frustrating but more often than not, savagely entertaining.
School is one of those things that everybody can relate to, that everybody can have an opinion on and it’s even a field in which everybody is an expert due to their own unique experience of a theoretically utilitarian system that is designed by people who, all too often, imagine life from the top down as opposed to the bottom up; like the Care Bears being sent out to wage the war on drugs.
Like friends, family, death, and taxes it’s inevitability will scorn you and mind you, hurt you and help you, haunt you and occasionally inspire you, while ultimately butchering its pound of flesh from your adolescent bones.
They are strange places, every last one of them. Inevitably, all of them are, despite the incredible endeavour that permeates the majority of them, doomed to be deeply flawed institutions. They are living and breathing cathedrals of dysfunctionality, because there is nothing natural about having 550 kids coming together under the tutelage of 40 odd teachers, a couple of secretaries and a caretaker in buildings that still lag depressingly behind the standards of the Chicago public schools of the 1980s that we all saw in John Hughes movies like The Breakfast Club.
The second-best thing about being a teacher, a secondary teacher in particular, is that every day you get to pursue some of the greatest passions of your life through the subjects that you teach. Before I, eventually, found the path to teaching, I was worried that it would ultimately be a boring existence, as the monotony of teaching the same texts year after year would lead to the same type of comfortable numbness that I was trying to escape from in the first place.
I quickly found out how completely wrong I was. Because straight away I learned that it’s the students that make it all worthwhile and interesting. The texts don’t change, but the kids do, and there lies the satisfaction, or the fulfillment, or whatever you want to call it.
Of course, the aforementioned plague of top-down dogma does its utmost to drain the marrow from your bones. This, after all, is a society in which ‘learnings’ is now an acceptable term. However, once you remember to cut through the bullshit, and what a pile of it there is, it’s brilliant.
The ultimate bonus of the profession, however, is in the extra-curricular opportunities that present themselves, should you be of a mind to take them. Some of the best memories from my own school days revolve around such events. There were trips up mountains, road trips to watch games in Sligo, weeks away in Mayo, day trips to An Rinn, sports days and endless trips to play games all over Munster.
There was hurling, football, soccer, basketball, debating, chess club, lunch-time table tennis and all sorts of other things in between that might tickle your fancy. They gave the 65-minute lunch-break a purpose for us boggers who were confined to the school grounds (in theory, anyway), they gave us something to look forward to, they gave us a break from the building, a release from the tedium and exposed us to a different kind of education altogether. One of immense value but one that still remains, thankfully in the current world, totally immeasurable.
For while the merits of algebra, Darwin’s theory of evolution and the Tuiseal Ginideach are self-evident; they will never really match the thrill of finding out who can throw a stone the furthest into the silt of the Blackwater estuary.
Which brings us to the now. It is hard to describe how joyless these unforeseen events have made the school day. School has been reduced to a merely academic pursuit, and it is all the poorer for it. John Donne taught us that ‘no man is an island’ yet when you look down at a class now, one-person islands is all that you see.
Everything is stripped back to the individual; there’s nobody close to you to ask for help when you need it, or to wake you up from a post-lunch daydream on a sunny May afternoon. On the plus side, this also means that there’s less chance of somebody sticking a compass in your leg but as the year drags on, there’s even a longing for the days of the occasional unprovoked act of grievous bodily harm.
And then there’s the games. Or then there isn’t the games. There are those who may question their benefit to school life, but now that the Utopia of a distraction-free education has been exposed to be a dystopian web of meaninglessness, perhaps we can truly appreciate fully the role that the games, and, obviously, all extra-curricular activities play in our schools, especially as they are being squeezed more and more by bureaucratic ambivalence and a pace of life that is relentless in its unsustainability.
On becoming a teacher, I was inevitably drawn to all things GAA in my school, and we have been blessed with a management who are fully supportive of endeavours of all creeds. While it is hard to describe the love I have for every facet of it, it’s even harder to articulate how much I miss it.
There’s the boorish enthusiasm of the first years, the feigned indifference of the second and third years, the nonchalance of the fourth years – when they happen to be there – and the focus of the fifth and sixth years as, for the first times in their lives, they realise that the sporting life is a finite one as they desperately try to make their mark.
Then there’s bus journeys to nowhere in particular, the inevitable in-game snow-storm (Old Parish, de gnáth), the chronic mis-matches, the pondering as to why we never seem to have a 6 foot-plus first year, the days when the score is irrelevant, the day when the score is everything, the intricate ballet of organising the games, the training sessions caked in the mud of winter when twilight has practically surrendered to starlight and then, when things are going well, there’s the games played in perfect conditions.
But, more than anything else, there’s the kids. Every last one of them. The hero who will play in goal because nobody else will, the lad who is giving it a go again even though he’s slipped away from his club, the leaders who drive everything on with a maturity that belies their years, the kid who is capable of anything – literally ANYTHING – the kids you would never had got to know were it not for sport, the lads who you know will have long careers, the guys you fear will drift away, the chats in the yard, the laughter on the bus, the dirge from those accursed Bluetooth speakers, their hopes their fears, their youth, their excitement, their fecklessness and their commitment.
But there has been none of that this past year. There’s just been the books.
“how weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable, seem to me all the uses of this world!”
Kids are tough, they are resilient, and they never cease to amaze you. But how ‘alright’ are they and will they be when things get going again? What’s being planned to help them adjust to the forthcoming return to normality? Will it be all about the books? Will the pressure to ‘catch up’ supersede their right to a foolish youth?
I fear that I know the answer to some of those questions, but one can always hope that someone, up there, will realise that in the autumn of a global pandemic a trip to the theatre, or a trek up a mountain or a dip in a lake or even a trip to Old Parish is a bit more important than justification by faith alone.
In the meantime, to the classes of 2020 and 2021 whose school lives and school sporting careers ended with a whimper that made them want to scream; go n-éirí libh. We had good days, bad days, and the occasional great day; but you were always brilliant.