Paul Andrews SJ recalls his experiences in education in the 1950s.
It is jubilee time. I have lived long enough to find myself invited to reunions of people I taught in the mid-1950s. The occasions lend themselves to sentimental utterances, remembering the nice things – having a young body, an uncluttered mind and good friends – and gliding over the dark patches: bullying, corporal punishment, the uncertainties of the hungry fifties, when career guidance was unnecessary because there were no jobs.
Suffer the little children
The gospel shows Jesus with children (Mt.19:13). They were noisy, energetic, enjoying life, running instinctively towards someone who also enjoyed it. The apostles spoke sternly to those who brought them: ‘These kids are not serious. We are here to listen to the Sermon on the Mount, and we can’t hear him properly with all this noise and commotion’. Jesus intervened, invited the children closer and laid his hands on them. He gave them two precious things that cost no money: time and affection.
I remember 1956. A trade union official was considered revolutionary when he looked for a minimum wage of £10 a week. Some architects were surviving on £4. Our highest hopes were for a modest sufficiency. I was in my first teaching job. Schools tended to follow the line of the apostles rather than that of Jesus.
Pupils were expected to be passive, at the receiving end, moving in lockstep, so that it was frowned upon to move ahead of the posse in your reader. They sat in rows, hands visible, not speaking unless spoken to, like the children Maria Montessori described, butterflies transfixed on pins. A teaching colleague recounted the stern advice she received in training college: ‘Don’t lean down to a pupil; keep your distance’.
Joy of learning
This year, I am celebrating the retirement of Madeleine, a wonderful teacher from that time, but not of it. She saw that love could flow in a classroom without inducing chaos; that children could learn in an active way, even moving around, following their interests; that even at a young age they could exercise self-discipline in learning.
This needed space and a particular sort of teacher, who was unsurprisable, could challenge her pupils, trust their good desires and command their respect. I had a chance to know many of her pupils, and came to recognize the unspoiled joy in learning and living that marked children from her classes.
Later I used to bring girls and boys from another small school, Saint Declan’s, to play football against Madeleine’s school. It was a special sort of football, with passionate parents on the sidelines.
Numbers on the pitch were fluid, as players were distracted from the round ball by the delights of climbing trees or exploring sand-pits or bird-boxes. The referee was expected not merely to record the score but to control it. An even result was much prized. Towards the end of one match a breathless boy asked me, ‘What’s the score?’ Two all,’ I said. Donal responded with a metaphysical question which has puzzled me ever since: ‘Who is two and who is all?’
It was always fun to be there. The school was ‘green’ before its time, delighting in growing things and in the green spaces not far away: the Sugarloaf, Killiney Hill. Madeleine was always cooking up something exciting, with the help of parents.
What is a jubilee? Not a time of complacency or self-congratulation, but of drawing strength from roots. It is certainly a time for gratitude: to God, for preserving us over half a century; gratitude to the management boards that sustained such schools through many quietly negotiated crises; gratitude to Madeleine and other teachers, for the magic they worked in keeping love flowing; gratitude to the parents who trusted them; and, above all, gratitude to the children who made such schools into places of sunshine.
So much to give
We have learned since 1956 that children are deprived, not because we do not give them things, but because we do not sufficiently value what they give us. Madeleine realized and taught us to welcome what children have to offer. You remember how Kahlil Gibran wrote about children:
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
for they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
Despite our exalted role as teachers or parents, we were conscious that we were not as good as we looked. Those of us who were no longer children took on the gigantic responsibility of working for them. We know we were less than perfect: that we were sometimes short-tempered, indulged our particular delight in one child or our irritation with another, failed to stand for the weak against the strong, for ensuring fairness and justice.
What children do afterwards is of their own shaping, but we touched their lives. Insofar as we failed to help them, or even did harm, a jubilee reminds us to say to God, to our charges, and to our fellow workers: ‘Please pardon me; I am sorry for my inadequacies’.
Our children are flying forward into areas we have not charted ourselves. What is asked of us is in Kahlil’s last phrase: ‘Even as the Archer loves the arrow that flies, so he loves also the bow that is stable’. We are expected to be stable, reliable, showing a steady love in our own lives.
2006 is unimaginably different from 1956, but we can draw a difficult lesson from those beginnings. We can learn to offer our children what Jesus offered: love and stability, plenty of time and a readiness to bless.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (October 2006), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.