Sunday 16 June 2019

The letter I wish I'd sent

Dear Mrs McHugh,

The year was 1958, Galway - it was September and we were back at school, a grey, forbidding place where speaking Irish was compulsory. I was in fifth class and in my third year with the same teacher. My mother saw an advertisement in the paper for your embroidery classes - ''Monday to Friday, 4 to 6pm - sixpence per class'' - and I was enrolled.

I can only say that from my first entry into your house, my life was enriched and the possibilities appeared endless. You were large and fat and greeted me at the door and brought me into your sitting room where 15 or 20 little girls sat around on stools and chairs, all sewing happily.

You started me off with a stem stitch and I began to stitch around the outline of a Tara brooch which you had copied on to a square of white wool cloth using tracing paper and blue carbon paper. This was my introduction to a world of lovebirds and Irish harps and Celtic designs which we would embroider using our choice of coloured threads from your huge selection in the glass case.

You sat on your stool by the sewing machine and told us stories from your life - about your trip to England to visit your daughter in the Poor Clares and how your ears got blocked on the flight and then popped as you were on the bus from the airport, and how the older nuns would each leave a little of their dinner on their plates for the novice nuns who waited hungrily.

You encouraged every single one of us - even if the embroidery was full of mistakes you would assure us it could be easily fixed up and would find an American buyer! We progressed to making pictures with pieces of tweed stuck on to cardboard - mountains and lakes and little cottages - each one a masterpiece, you said.

I went to boarding school the following year - you went on to greater heights, planting flowers all along the canal bank beside your house, helped by a small army of youngsters. You even wrote a book about the experience.

I am sure I was only one of many children to whom you opened up a Technicolor world of endless creativity.

Thank you so much for all you brought me, Mrs McHugh. I never forgot you and your many talents and true generosity of spirit - you brought joy and promise to my young life and no doubt to many others.

Ursula Burke,

Co Limerick

Dear Bully,

I don't know if you are still on this earth - you would be around 80 years of age - or if you have gone to meet your maker. If you have left us for the next life there is only one place you can be.

It was your first year as a teacher in 1961 and for our class it was our first year in secondary school. For me and many of my class, who had to cycle eight to 10 miles to school in a well-known establishment, it was a nightmare to hear your footsteps coming down the corridor to start another day of physical abuse. Fists, elbows, boots, dusters and rulers were your way of "educating" us.

Those of us who lived outside the town, often sitting in wet clothes, were the most abused, called insulting names to add insult to injury. Because of your inability to act anything like a teacher you had to go next door to one of your co-teachers to find out the answer to a test you had set us. I often meet some of my old schoolmates and none of us ever finished out our term, all left school at an early age and finished up with menial employment. We all have one thing in common, knowing that if you are not already burning in hell there is no way that you will escape Old Nick when your time is up.

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Dear C.A.,

Your grandfather moved from Dublin to our small town on the Wicklow/Carlow border in the mid-1950s. Your brother and father came regularly to visit him, and you and I became friends. I couldn't have imagined how my life was going to change and how I was introduced to a whole new way of life when I went to visit you in Sutton - first for holidays and then I moved up to live with you and your family. I was made so welcome, your friends became my friends as well, you, like another sister to me. It was an idyllic life for me. We played tennis, went horse riding in Malahide and would have afternoon tea in the Grand Hotel afterwards. Eating out in lovely hotels was so new for me, Sunday lunch in Gaffneys on the summit in Howth, fishing trips with Captain Doyle out of the harbour around Ireland's Eye and down the coast to Skerries.

We worked in your father's business in town and often your dad took us to have lunch in the zoo. I remember boating holidays on the Norfolk Broads - such wonderful memories. In summer we went swimming at the Bull Wall, and had lovely walks on Howth Head, and all the time such lovely friends to share all this with.

All good things come to an end and I decided to go to England to become a nurse. When I returned to my home town, I met my husband. We are married 53 years now. You married one of the lovely friends and somehow our ways parted. Our meetings have been all too few over the years but I have never forgotten you and the happiest of times spent with you and your family.

I don't think I ever articulated just how much I appreciated your friendship and the kindness shown to me by you and your wonderful dad who treated me like a daughter. All of the time spent with you in Sutton was a special and very happy and never forgotten time in my life.

Thank you, dear friend. I hope you and your family are well and happy, Until we meet again, and I hope it will be soon.

Love, M,

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Dear all my Junior Schoolteachers,

I would like to invite you for a few moments to enter my world as I experienced it in school as a child with undiagnosed dyslexia. My life journey has been a very difficult one directly due to the fact that I spent most of it not knowing I have dyslexia.

I am now in my early sixties and I only discovered when I was 45 that I have dyslexia. Rather than explain where my life took me, I have transported myself back to how I felt every day in school.

The following are the words of a six or seven-year-old Derry-Ann, my precious child within.

I feel sad… very sad but I am only a child… and children are supposed to have fun, play games, laugh and enjoy growing up… but no matter how hard I try I can't join in with the other girls in my class, while they skip and run around in the playground.

Instead, I feel like I have the weight of the world on my small shoulders. Inside I am crying… I desperately want to be like the other children who are light-hearted and full of fun and enjoy learning.

I wish I could find a way to express my frustration and the difficulties that I experience in school every day; the difficulties which I believe cause me to struggle and continuously underachieve and fail.

Yes, I know failure all too well. It is the constant failure, the struggle and underachievement that I experience, which make me feel different from the other girls in my class. Why am I so different, I ask myself over and over, in the hope that someone will reply, but no one ever does? No one seems to understand that I am slowly dying inside.

The other girls never seem to have difficulty learning to read, to work out new sums or to remember spellings, but I do… I always do.

My teacher must be right. My teacher says I am stupid and teachers know everything, so I must be stupid… in fact I believe I am stupid.

The other girls giggle when they hear the teacher tell me that I am stupid or when she says I don't try hard enough. If only they knew how hard I try, if only they knew… it is just not fair.

Every night when I go to bed I pray to my guardian angel that I will be different tomorrow. I pray that the stress, pain in my head and fear I feel will go away and I will remember my spellings and tables, which I have spent so long learning.

I pray that I will understand what the teacher is saying. I hate when I don't seem to hear what she is saying. I get all mixed up. I really try to listen, but no one believes me because I keep getting some words wrong. I think she is saying one thing only to find out she is saying something very different… what is wrong with me? Am I deaf?

But each next day is the same… everything goes blank when I am in the classroom. I know that the teacher is talking but her voice fades into the background as the beating of my heart gets louder and louder. It gets so loud that I am sure the girl sitting beside me can hear it… but she never says anything… maybe she is just too polite. My hands are very sweaty and my head hurts. I try to focus on the blackboard.

But the more I try to focus my eyes, the more the letters which the teacher has written in thick white chalk, start to move away from the board. It is no use, I can't read any of the words. I can only see a beautiful pattern like white shimmering streaks of sunlight dancing on a black background. I watch them and for a few moments, I get lost in their dance. I am frozen in my seat as the beautiful shimmering streaks dance, keeping in time to the music of my sad beating heart.

Suddenly I hear the teacher call my name out loud… I desperately want to answer but no matter how hard I try, I can't utter a word. I begin to stammer… yeah, yeah… Miss… but it is useless, I am totally numb and filled with fear.

I want to run, to hide, to get as far away from the classroom as I possibly can… but I can't move. My senses are on high alert. I sense my teacher beside me, looking over my shoulder. I feel nauseated as I get the strong smell of stale cheap perfume coming from her heavy knitted cardigan.

I can't make out what she is saying but I clearly know from the tone of her mumblings, the teacher is expressing a deep disapproval of me yet again. She moves on and asks her question to another child who, of course, has the right answer.

I am very relieved, she has gone, but the all too familiar internal tears of shame rush through me once again; drowning my self-confidence, self-esteem and any flicker of child-like spirit I feel inside…

And so the cycle continues day after day year after year… junior school, secondary school and yes into the workplace….

Had my particular ''learning difference'' commonly known as dyslexia, been discovered all those years ago I have no doubt that a day in my life in school would have been a very different story.


Derry-Ann Morgan,

Ballyboughal, Co Dublin

Dear Nephew,

In December 13 years ago you came into the world and, happily for me, into my life. As your mama was working, I helped to care for you. My life was so enriched by your presence. You were an adorable fun-loving boy. Your smile would lift my heart.

I bought you a yellow blanket and you wrapped yourself up in it and you have kept it to this day. You are now a teenager with so many plans and hopes for the future, all of which you are capable of achieving.

You touched a special place in my heart.

The world is a nicer place with a nephew like you residing in it.

Your loving aunt

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