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  • Writer's pictureNiamh O'Reilly

Oh Captain, My Captain

The little dude will be starting school in September. As in actual junior infants. Proper school. And if I’m being really honest, I’ve been in complete denial about it all. That is until today when there was a meeting about the upcoming start in September. Uniforms, drop off/collection times, school bags, the curriculum, even the dreaded homework word were all used.

I won’t lie. My heart sank a little.

If I’m being even more honest, the truth is I don’t want him to start school yet. I just want him to stay at this innocent, fun loving, happy-go-lucky period in his life, when he has no worries beyond minor things like when he can have a packet of buttons or go to the playground or jump up and down on the couch and watch Dinotrux.

He’s still mine. The world hasn’t gotten to him yet, not really. It’s only lightly peppered the edges of his life, his harshest encounter nothing beyond a mean child in the playground, where helicopter mum me can swoop in and back him up.

I just have this urge to shield him from the big bad world, to keep him safe, to stop the bad parts of life ever getting near him. And yet, I know I have to let him go. It’s part of life, it’s how he’ll learn and even though I understand all of that, I just want to him to stay mine.

It’s all got me thinking about the education system and how much of an impact teachers can have on your life. I’m a huge movie buff (or nerd if you will!) and one film that always creeps into my top 50 is Dead Poets Society. I remember watching it for the first time on TV as a young teenager and being left wowed by it. I’d not seen a movie like it before and the famous ‘Oh Captain, My Captain,’ moment at the close of the film has always stuck with me, because having a teacher or mentor who leaves an impression like that on you can be life changing.

If you’re lucky you’ll have at least one teacher like this in your life and I truly hope both of my sons will have their own ‘Oh Captain, My Captain,’ teachers or educators in their lives and while I haven’t quite stood on a desk for one myself, I’ve been lucky enough to have teachers at each stage of my education that left a lasting positive mark on me to this day.

In my final two years of primary school there was Ms MacDonagh. She was the Irish and PE teacher. She was young, she was cool, and she didn’t talk down to us. She was the first and only teacher to open my eyes to how Irish should and could have been taught.

She made it a living language, accessible and less frightening. I only wish her way of teaching the language could have been replicated in the years afterwards. Her enthusiasm for girls in sport was huge. She encouraged my love of sport and pushed me to go harder and strive for more. She was amazing.

In secondary school things were all change. Things were more serious and I felt as though the creativity so nurtured at primary level was being pushed out of me, until a new English teacher came along called Ms Connolly. Again she was young (ish!) and didn’t patronise us. She talked to us like human beings with thoughts and ideas of our own. She respected us and encouraged us and she left a big impression on everyone who met her. She even (for her sins) became our transition year co-coordinator and even though we put her though the ringer that year, she never stopped fighting for us.

In my BA in Journalism I was lucky enough to have the late great Sean Egan as a lecturer and I feel as though we were kindred spirits.

He’d literally ‘been there, done that.’ He reported for RTE, travelled the world and even interviewed Che Guevara. He was genuinely passionate about educating the next generation of journalists and broadcasters and was nothing short of remarkable.

He was beyond encouraging of my dream to write a book and even though he’d done it all, writing a piece of ‘killer fiction’ was the one thing that eluded him. He went out of his way to help and support me and I know if he was here today, he’d be one of the first people I’d send my manuscript to and he’d read it cover to cover and offer the best, most constructive and supportive feedback. Simply put, he was a legend.

And finally to my Masters. Going into the course I didn’t think I’d find the same sort of level of connection with any of the lecturers, due to short nature of the programme, but I was wrong. Dr. Tom Clonan is without question the best lecturer I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. His intelligence was in equal parts terrifying and inspiring. I’ve always prided myself on having a large vocabulary, but he dropped words and phrases into lectures that I’d never heard before. He didn’t over explain things, yet welcomed questions. It was the perfect balance and an absolute a revelation. I felt as though I was challenged by him every day. It was as though I was in the deep end, but instead of floundering, I focussed. Again, the theme here is not being talked down to. Having your thoughts and ideas valued.

Dr. Clonan was also a former Captain in the Irish Army so his worldly knowledge was something that brought an extra dimension to his lectures. I remember when I found out he was to be my thesis supervisor. I was a little scared… that is to say I was shitting a brick. I didn’t feel on an intellectual par with this man and I worried about how I’d be able to work with him. It was tough. I can remember him pushing me to my limit. He never molly coddled me and it turns out that was what I needed. He could see my potential and drew it out. Yes there were times I wanted to ring his neck, but with his guidance I elevated my work to new heights, came out with a first class honours and bagged the award for research for the best thesis. Beyond the lecture room he’s also a thoroughly nice person and someone I’d most certainly stand on a desk for and say ‘Oh Captain, My Captain.’

Never underestimate how much of an impact a good teacher can have on a life. It's huge and I really hope my boys are lucky enough to have a stand out teacher, educator or mentor along their educational journeys.


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