independent

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Gerard O’Regan: Lessons from the classroom of life and a brave new world for Tommy

TOMMY O'Shea is a 55-year-old school teacher, married to Veronica, and they have two grown-up sons. Most notably, Tommy is also a public servant. And as the public service debate rages on, and the Budget looms, Tommy feels he is moving ever closer to going for "the deal" that will ease him into retirement.

Sometimes when he thinks of making the final cut he lapses into reverie. Memories of when his teaching odyssey first began come flooding back.

He never thought about becoming a public servant as such, just a school teacher.

It was inevitable his career would be "chalk and talk". His father and grandfather had been teachers, and the family lineage famously included a cousin who worked in a hedge school in their west Cork parish back in the 1820s.

For Tommy it was all inevitable. Fuelled by the family background, and fluency in the Irish language, he eased into St Patrick's Training College.

A number of teaching posts followed before his job of many years in a Dublin suburban school.

And all those school terms have fused one into the other. Leaving Cert English and French, year after year after year.

Then his charges would leave to make their way in the world of grown-ups.

He was happy. He never gave the possibility of another job a second thought. Correcting homework, the heartache of imposing discipline, the small victories and defeats of the classroom, the backbiting in the staffroom, and the moments of quiet satisfaction that he could never account for. He unknowingly loved it all.

The blip was the so-called Celtic Tiger years when he would admit to a vague sense of discontent.

He pondered if career-wise he should have done something different? Was life passing him by? Sometimes he even hankered for a job that simply paid better.

He wanted his share of all that excess money that was sloshing around.

He remembers being discomfited by the condescending unfairness of some high-earning parents in those days. If their son or daughter was an academic success it was because of their genes; if the offspring was an academic under-achiever it was the fault of the teacher or the school.

But he knew the rules of the game. Mostly he was confident in his own skin simply being a school teacher.

However, if he was to be really honest, even this groundedness was challenged.

He still feels a kind of shame over spending all those hours in one of the city's burgeoning grind schools, chasing some of that Tiger money, when he knew in his heart it dulled the cutting edge of his day job.

And despite his best efforts he never quite got on the apartment-buying property investment ladder, although the grind school cash did go a long way towards paying for his garage conversion.

Influenced by the money-fixated ways of those years, neither of his sons went into teaching. Veronica feels this was against his and their better judgment. They're in the freewheeling private sector.

But it's all too late to change things now.

The continuum with the hedge school on that west Cork hillside is no more.

These days when Tommy agonises over early retirement he remembers Johnno from his Leaving Cert French class last year – one of many troubled teens he encountered during a lifetime in the classroom.

He always fancied himself as being pretty good at coping with the Johnnos of this world.

"I notice the ones who might miss the wicket gate somewhere," used to be his staffroom refrain during his swashbuckling younger teaching days.

It was a kind of meaningless phrase, but all the other teachers knew what he meant. Tommy was the best kind of teacher there was. Sure, wasn't it in his very DNA?

JOHNNO was broken from some very private demons, and Tommy tried his old ploys to try to get him through the dreaded Leaving Cert days of judgment.

He gave him special homework, corrected it with extra care and stayed late with him in the classroom some evenings, nudging ever forward his knowledge of French grammar.

He had met him in the street only some weeks ago. Johnno came furtively towards him.

"Thanks sir for all the help with the French and everything. I won't forget it."

A quick sweaty handshake and then he was gone. But Tommy would remember those defeated and troubled eyes. He knew in his heart that Johnno had missed that all-important wicket gate.

Should he have done more? Was he just getting too old for the teaching game?

Maybe, just maybe, all the jibing against the public service was getting to him.

He has seen the lazy teachers, the disillusioned, the bitter, the avaricious. They never really understood all his old hedge school guff.

But there were so many others. Teachers like him, going the extra mile – just like him before he had begun to doubt his mojo.

So maybe it's time to finally call it a day – and take that deal.

Time for Tommy O'Shea to be a public servant no more.

Irish Independent

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