Hard Times

The next six months of my life were probably the most difficult I have experienced so far. But strangely enough, it was my now dead father who saw me through. He had been a literature teacher at a local secondary school for the first 13 years of his professional life but as time went on he grew more and more disillusioned with school life. Not only did he feel like he was trying to teach people things they didn't want to know, but he was keenly aware of the fact that instead of opening up minds, he was closing them down, possibly forever.

A meeting with a former student brought about a radical change in his attitude and his life. As a young man, this student had been difficult and argumentative. He never read and saw little use in discussing stories which meant nothing to him. But one day he came back to our town to publicise his second novel. He even gave a reading at the school and my dad, who knew the author from his first highly-acclaimed book took charge of the visit. Imagine his surprise when the well-known author turned out to be precisely this former student who had never showed any aptitude for, nor interest in things literary. He invited him to our house for dinner and the man ended up staying with us for ten days, entertaining with some fascinating discussions in the kitchen around Mam's Irish Stew. And two days after he left my dad announced he was taking one month's leave of absence and going away on his own.

We heard nothing for four or five days and Mam was getting a bit worried. But then the letters started coming thick and fast. Dad was visiting a centre where a whole new concept in adult education was being tried out. The simple premise on which the concept rested was teach them nothing until they want to learn it, but once they start asking then teach them all they want. This was what had made the difference for Dad's former student and Dad bought into it lock, stock and barrel. He became obsessed and upon his return he resigned his post at the school to much head-shaking from his former colleagues and put all his savings into and adult education centre which he started from scratch. True, we never became rich from this, but the way he was able to impact other people's lives more than compensated for the lack of any real remunerative advantages. Even Mam began to get excited once she got over the worries of those first years, and realised they weren't all going to end up on the street after all.

The one thing I learnt from this, I unfortunately soon forgot. But it came back to me now that I was up against the wall. The training was tough and I had less of an academic background than any of those there. That was the downside of Dad's philosophy as I used it as an excuse for laziness simply stating I didn't want to learn anything. And just like the many thousands that passed through Dad's school and similar ones that were springing up all over the country, for those first few weeks I was sinking rather than swimming. But Dad kept them going by continually reminding them of the potential that is in us all, and every evening I could here him repeating this phrase as I sat at my desk sweating and worrying over all I had to assimilate.

I may have been a bad learner but once I had learnt something then it usually stuck and thanks to Dad's reminding me day in day out, I soon began believing that I could make it. Some of my associates on the course also began to believe in me and before long they began coming to me for help or just to discuss some of the issues I was dealing with. The awkwardness of those first weeks began to melt away. But the real breakthrough came after the first three weeks when classes were limited to the mornings and we started field trips and work assignments in the afternoon. Now, I began to see where everything we were learning in the mornings actually fit in. And I started bubbling over with ideas which I couldn't wait to implement in Gensdouce.

Which was when I learnt my second lesson. As fresh and impatient as I was, I wrote several letters back to my committee telling them all we needed to change in order to innovate. Fortunately, most of them were returned to me and I've kept them as a way of curbing not youthful enthusiasm but immeasurable pride. They make me cringe when I read them now, as much as they made those people cringe to whom they were sent. And although, most passed them over, putting it down to my inexperience and naivety, Guillaume and Thérèse took up the cudgel in a long, reproving letter for which I remain eternally grateful.


Solid incorporation of the words. Thanks for the read.

16 January 2008 at 19:33  

The second lesson was my favorite, especially the reproving letter.

16 January 2008 at 20:23  

Your father sounds like he was a brave, passionate, and compassionate man. You told an interesting tale. I wonder if you could turn this into an essay for "This I believe" on NPR. Just a thought.

16 January 2008 at 20:54  

teach them nothing until they want to learn

i believe this is the wisest statement i have ever heard with any reference to education... this whole chapter was wonderful,,, but these words will stick with me....

17 January 2008 at 04:28  

One very good write. I truly love to read your work. Sometimes I just lurk as I can't find words.

17 January 2008 at 16:45  

I like the idea of "teach them nothing until they want to learn." Excellent philosophy.

18 January 2008 at 15:40  

another interesting chapter....

21 January 2008 at 18:22  

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