Mr Hynes

How many different teachers did any of us have throughout our childhood and adolescent years? Ten, twenty, thirty? And how many of those inspired us, moved us, helped to shape us into the adults we are today?

I received a WhatsApp message from my sister yesterday morning, who in turn had received a message from one of her old school friends. The message said that Pat Hynes had died. ‘Do you remember him?’ my sister asked. ‘He always wore sandals and socks’. And even though I hadn’t seen or even thought about Pat Hynes in years, the news of his death moved me to tears and I sat sobbing in the café where I had, up to that point, been enjoying my morning coffee.

Mr Hynes wore socks with sandals alright, and a tweed jacket. He was sandy haired, slightly built and drove to school in a little car. Unlike some of my other teachers, who were from or who lived in my home town, Mr Hynes’ life outside school was an enigma to me. He was ever so slightly exotic, a lone English accent in a sea of Bog of Allen accents and, when you asked him where he came from, he always said, ‘I was born in the South China Sea’. For all I know, he was.

Mr Hynes was my religion teacher. In a state school in Ireland, i.e. a Catholic school, religion was compulsory, though not an exam subject. Over my school career I had a number of religion teachers, each of them memorable for different reasons. But none made a bigger impression on me than Mr Hynes. When other teachers expounded on the evils of masturbation (to a co-ed class of 14 years olds), divorce and sex before marriage (all of this from an unfortunately menopausal nun whose hot flushes were all too common), or the likelihood of Nostradamus’ end of the world prophesies coming true any time soon (striking the fear of God into me), Pat Hynes had an approach to our Christian Doctrine classes that was altogether more humorous and humanist.

With a sharp wit and the skills of a storyteller, he taught us about social justice, empathy and kindness. He urged us to believe in ourselves and to be true to ourselves. For him, these were the ways we honoured God. As a 16 and 17 year old, I was trying to figure out where, if anywhere, my faith lay and I remember being able to talk openly and honestly with Mr Hynes about that. He didn’t judge me or tell me it was a sin to question my faith, or anything of the sort. And I respected and admired him all the more for it.

He teased me mercilessly about my Irish dancing skills. When he was first, briefly, my religion teacher, when I was about 13 years old, I told him the sorry tale of my inability to escape the Beginner’s Line at Olive Keogh’s School of Irish Dancing. Week after week, I watched as my classmates graduated out of the Beginner’s Line while Olive either overlooked me or told me I needed another week. Eventually I quit, and thus the fledgling career of a future Riverdancer died before it had even got started. Mr Hynes thought my Irish dancing failure hilarious and when we’d meet in the school corridor or when I’d walk into class, he would refer to me as ‘the Irish dancer’ or ask me to show him a few steps.

I recall meeting him only once more after I left school back in 1990. I remember one day, in my late 20s, bumping into him in a short-lived bookshop on JKL Street, Edenderry’s main street. He asked how I was and asked after my sister and some of my old classmates and friends, interested in how our lives had progressed since we’d left school. And then he asked me how my Irish dancing was coming along. I was touched that, despite the hundreds and hundreds of students he had taught over the years, he remembered that little joke we had shared over a decade earlier.

From my entire 13 years at school, there is probably only one other teacher the news of whose death would move me as much. Mr Hynes didn’t help me pass exams. What he taught me didn’t help me get into university. He didn’t teach me syntax or grammar, French verb conjugation or the periodic table. He didn’t teach me how to solve mathematical problems. But he taught me about empathy and justice, about having confidence in myself and being true to myself. I learned from him that a person can have a strong faith in God while not expecting the same from everyone else around them. I learned that it was ok, indeed right, to examine my own faith. And I learned that one could be professional and take life seriously with both good humour and a smile on one’s face. I always looked forward to my religion classes with Pat Hynes because he was, above all, a lovely human being.

When I, via WhatsApp, passed the news of his passing on, my old classmates were just as saddened by his passing as I was. Wherever he is now, in heaven or floating over the South China Sea, may he rest in peace.

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A lesson in empathy

Thursday marked the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and today marks the same anniversary for Nagasaki. When I visited both cities during the mid-1990s I went to each city’s peace garden and atomic bomb museum. I was deeply moved by the sight of old men and women, then fifty years removed from the bombing, crying as they moved through the museums. Their pain had endured through all that time.

On Thursday, now seventy years from those horrific events, I watched BBC news coverage of Japanese men and women now in their eighties and nineties sharing their stories. Again I was deeply moved, partly because this is a horror that could be visited on any of us, and partly because this happened in a country that is dear to my heart. The old people telling their stories reminded me of the beautiful old obaasans and ojiisans who were my neighbours and my friends’ parents and grandparents when I lived in Japan, and their younger selves who experienced these horrors could have been, in a different age, my lively and fun-filled thirteen and fourteen year old students.

I had been watching some of the BBC coverage on the Internet after the girls had gone to bed. But Lily snuck out of bed and asked me what I was watching. I gave some thought to whether I should discuss it or not. I decided to explain it to her.

So I told her that on this day seventy years ago a bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, a city in Japan, and hundreds of thousands of people had died and many more were made very sick. Of course, she wanted to know why this had happened. She knew about World War II and I explained that lots of different countries were involved, some fighting on one side, some fighting on the other. I explained that the Japanese army had done bad things in other countries, but that many people – including me – didn’t think that made it right to drop these two terrible bombs on Japan.

She asked some other questions and I tried to answer them as best I could. Then she said, ‘You know when I’m naughty to Katie, you always tell me to think’.
‘Yes’, I said, not sure where her train of thought was going.
‘You tell me to think how I would feel if someone pinched me, or called me names I didn’t like’.
‘Yes, I do’, I said. ‘Think about how you would want someone to treat you’.
‘Well’, Lily said, ‘I think someone should have told those people to think before they dropped that bomb. How would they feel if someone dropped that bomb on their land? How would they feel if someone made their house go on fire and if their family was killed?’

Well, Lily, I guess you’ve just figured out empathy.

PS: Here’s a link to a child-appropriate story film about Hiroshima.

Burn the book

Twice this week, and for very different reasons, I’ve felt the need to cast aside the textbook from which I teach English, in order to focus on other things. At the English language academy where I work Monday to Friday, each class works from a textbook published by Cambridge University Press. In the past I’ve taken issue with some of the material in the books (igloos are made from ice; the universal use of contractions – don’t, can’t, I’m, etc –without teaching what those contractions are or mean; and the insistence on teaching such archaic phrases as ‘Whose books are those?’ and ‘Needn’t she go there?’). The boss wants us to get through those books quickly, thus demonstrating to the parents, who pay for their children to attend, that English is being learned. But ploughing through a text book doesn’t mean they’re learning anything.

I teach children and adults but, both occasions this week when I decided to not use the book (don’t tell the boss) were with nine-year olds, currently on different pages of the same book.

I was horrified when I looked over the page I was supposed to teach on Thursday. How could I teach this rubbish? The top half of the page contained four photos – a teacher, a bus driver, a street cleaner and a doctor (the street cleaner was the only person whose face wasn’t shown…just a hand on a sweeping brush); and in the corner of each photo was a cartoon depicting what life would be like if these four professions didn’t exist. Without a teacher there would be anarchy in the classroom; without a bus driver, anarchy on the bus; without a street cleaner…you get my drift. The accompanying dialogue CD had children being rude to a teacher, rude to a bus driver, rude to a street cleaner….. The point of the lesson was that children should show respect, but the content of the lesson was so poorly thought out. I’m sure the teachers among you will be appalled to see that the writers of this textbook think that your primary role is not to educate and facilitate learning, but to keep people in line! Likewise, if you’re a bus driver, street cleaner or doctor. I really didn’t want to teach this.

And then my nine-year old students saved me from having to. Sergio came in first and proceeded to show me part of his gem collection that he had brought to class. When the others arrived (seven students in all) they wanted to see what Sergio had and to tell me about their minerals and stones. I show them the tiny fossil I always carry in my purse. They all wanted to know the English words for these and so an impromptu geology lesson ensued, as they explained the characteristics of various rocks and minerals and I tried to figure out what they meant before finding the word in the dictionary. In English they described iron, slate, marble, and fossils. Without any prompting from me, they all insisted on writing the words down and each one showed me the vocabulary notebooks they keep. No-one had ever told them to keep vocabulary notebooks – every one of them does it of their own accord.

‘What’s that teacher?’ Ainhoa asked, pointing to the pendant around my neck. I explained it is a caribou antler carving of an Inuit woman wearing an amauti. I took it off and passed it around the classroom, together with my walrus ivory rings – one in the shape of a beluga whale, the other a snowy owl. So we moved from geology to Arctic animals, to the difference between an antler and a horn, to the differences between toothed and baleen whales. For these little kids to do this in English, struggling to understand me and to be understood by me, was phenomenal. And I was learning too. For every new word they learned in English, I learned its Spanish equivalent. I would never have guessed that by the end of this week I would know that morsa is walrus, reno is reindeer, and lechuza is owl.

Buoyed by the fun we were having, Sergio piped up ‘I know all the planets in order’. Ok, so maybe he didn’t say it in such perfect English, but he communicated it well. As he listed the planets, Ainhoa jumped up and drew the solar system on the board. Miguel and Jose added bits and pieces and by the end there was a blooming good solar system, complete with orbits around the sun, covering the board. A debate ensued (in English) as to whether Pluto is still considered a planet or not. The seven children told me things about the planets that I didn’t know, and I told them things they didn’t know. We even talked about the possibility of travelling to and colonising Mars.

And then I did a naughty thing. At the end of every class we have to fill in a form stating what we’ve covered. The boss isn’t interested in geology and ecology and astronomy. So I wrote that we’d covered that page about the anarchy-quelling teachers and bus drivers. Who’s to know otherwise!

***

The second instance of throwing the book away was far less pleasant. It happened a day earlier, with another class of nine-year olds. This all-boy class has always been a little challenging for me. They are boisterous and fun-loving and, with a couple of exceptions, not at all interested in learning English. In the past I have had particular difficulties with two boys – I shall call them Juan and Luis, who seem to have an unhealthy obsession with anyone whose skin colour is not white. The textbook depicts cartoon characters with various skin colours and one of the two cartoon families that appear throughout the book is Indian. (Interestingly, all of the photographs in the book are of white people – well done, Cambridge University Press). On days when we open a page to a cartoon of people who clearly look Indian or African, these two boys begin their giggles and tittering and making comments about ‘negros’ and ‘terrorists’. My Spanish language abilities are virtually non-existent, so dealing with this effectively, is proving difficult for me. I have asked the principal to speak to these two boys, but he did so without having me present, so I’m not sure if he effectively conveyed why their behaviour is inappropriate.

On Wednesday I was teaching ‘er’ endings (riveting stuff). I asked the boys to think of words that end in ‘er. They came up with teacher, driver, mother, brother, etc. Then Juan said ‘nigger’. Now, I don’t know if that word is as awful in Spanish as it is in English, but it was time to forget about teaching English for a while. A much more important lesson was necessary.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to make myself understood. But if I used clear, simple English, was repetitive, and used the dictionary when necessary, the boys would understand by the tone of my voice how using this word was such a serious matter. I’d had enough of these two boys goofing around about ‘negros’ and thinking it was all a big joke.

I began by explaining very carefully and clearly that I never wanted to hear that word used in my classroom again. I would refuse to teach the boy who used that word. If I found out that a boy had used that word on the street, or in school, or at home I would similarly refuse to teach him. Juan, who had uttered the word, had downcast eyes and twice he said ‘sorry’.

With the help of my English-Spanish dictionary and a lot of body language, I explained that this word had been used by one group of people to put another group of people down and (and here I struggled to express myself simply but effectively) that some people felt it was alright to abuse and murder people they called by that name. Juan looked at me. He had disbelief written all over his face. ‘Really?’ he asked me, genuinely in disbelief. At this point, a wonderful boy, Alejandro, chimed in and, from what I could make out from his rapid Spanish, gave Juan a potted history of slavery in the US. From the look on Juan’s face, he had never heard of this before. He looked to other students for clarification. Arturo and Adrian told Juan that what Alejandro had said was true. I was delighted that these boys knew this history and could tell it.

I felt I had cracked Juan somewhat, but Luis was not convinced. I changed tack. ‘Look around this class’, I said (I was scrambling for ideas that would hold some weight), ‘Every one of us has a different skin colour’. Ivan noticed that he was the ‘whitest’ and had a smug grin on his face. But no, you miss the point, I told him. The point I’m making is that the colour of our skin is not important. By the way they responded to me I knew they understood what I was saying. But did they believe me?

Almost every week, Luis equates ‘negro’ with ‘terrorist’ and I have tried and tried to disabuse him of his beliefs. He came up with this argument again and it was time for me to try to change his mind again.
‘Negros are terrorists’, he said.
‘Luis’, I said, ‘There are Irish terrorists, Spanish terrorists, Japanese terrorists, American terrorists, Australian terrorists, English terrorists’ (I knew I was oversimplifying the complexities and confluences of nationality and race, but I wasn’t playing to a sophisticated audience). In the past he had refused to believe that there are Spanish terrorists and got very angry with me one day for insisting they exist.
‘Terrorism has absolutely nothing to do with the colour of anyone’s skin’, I said. But he seemed unconvinced.
‘They are terrorists in Iran’, he told me.
‘Yes’, I said, ‘There are. And just like Spain and Ireland and America and Kenya and any other country in the world you wish to name, most people in Iran are not terrorists’.
He gave me a ‘You sad naive woman’ sort of look.

‘Tell me, Luis, do you eat tomatoes’, I asked, changing tack once more and hoping to encourage empathy. ‘Yes’, he replied. I asked all the boys in turn if they ate tomatoes, and I told them that I do too. I then did the same for lettuce, peaches, cucumber and a variety of other common fruits and vegetables. We all admitted to eating a lot of these a lot of the time.
‘Where do they come from?’ I asked.
They had no idea, despite the fact that most of the produce we eat (here and across much of Europe) comes from the vast corporate poly-tunnel farms that cover the coastal plains of southern Andalucia, and where the parents of some of my students work as laboratory technicians, scientists and managers.
‘Who works on those farms?’I asked.
No-one knew.
‘The vast majority of the men who work on those farms are from Senegal, Mali, Morocco and other west African countries. Those men work extremely long hours for very little pay to provide you with the food you eat every day’. (This took some explaining, with dictionary, gestures and assistance from the boys with the best English abilities). ‘Those men are not terrorists. Those men feed you. They deserve your respect and gratitude’.

I don’t know if my message got through. And if it did, well, it’s only a tiny speck of ocean foam against a fast flowing current of bigotry and ignorance. I attempted to explain why we need to think carefully about the words we choose to use; and why we need to think about the labels we stick on people. I could have let Juan’s choice of ‘er’ word go, and I could have carried on with the lesson. But I decided closing the book was more important.

***

I’m not a qualified school teacher, and I suspect my approach to teaching is often ham-fisted and lacking in sophistication. But I enjoy teaching. I like these kids a great deal – even Juan and Luis. Especially Luis – he’s a troubled kid with a messed up home life. And I don’t really care if they learn English or not. But I do care that they learn kindness and compassion. And sometimes ‘wasting’ time on geology, astronomy and compassion is worth one hundred pages of the book.

Conversation with a five-year old

‘What’s that man doing?’ Lily asked me one day before Christmas, as we walked along a street in Almeria. We had walked past the friendly, grandfatherly-looking beggar who sits on a street corner not far from where I work.
‘He’s begging for money’, I told her.
‘Why?’
‘Because he has no other way to get money’
‘Why doesn’t he get money out of the bank?’
‘He doesn’t have any money in the bank’
‘How do you know?’
‘Because if he did have money in the bank he wouldn’t be sitting on the street corner in those torn old clothes begging for money’
‘Why doesn’t he ask his family for money?’
‘Maybe he doesn’t have any family. Or maybe his family can’t help him. Or don’t want to help him’

She’d exhausted this line of questioning so struck from another angle.
‘Why does he want money anyway?’
‘To buy food I suspect’
‘Why doesn’t he just get food from the shops?’
‘Well Lily, you coming shopping with me and Daddy, don’t you?’
‘Yeah…’
‘And the last thing we do before we leave the shop is pay for the food with money’
‘But maybe if he asked them they might give him some food’
‘Shops don’t work that way’
‘Why doesn’t he pick nuts off the trees?’
‘Lily, look around. Do you see any nuts on the trees here? They’re all palm trees’.
‘Well then why doesn’t he go to the beach and pick clams or mussels? Or get sea beet? Or blackberries?’
‘First of all, not everyone has learned how to forage for food like you and Katie have. And second, there’s very little to forage around here. We’re living in a coastal desert. It’s not like Devon or Brittany or Galicia where people can just pick food when they want. Not much grows here’ (I neglect to mention the billions of euros worth of fruits and vegetables grown in poly-tunnels all along this coast by large agro-industrial multinationals. Matters are complicated enough)
‘He could go to where there’s wild food’
‘How?’
‘On the bus’
‘Ah, so now we’re back to the original problem. He’d need money for the bus’
‘He could walk’
‘It’s a long way. His shoes don’t look sturdy enough for a long walk. He needs money to buy new shoes. And besides, he’d need food to give him energy to walk all that way. Remember what we learned about food and energy in your human body book?’

Now she finds a new solution.
‘He could get a job’
‘It’s not easy to get a job’
‘You have a job’
‘Yes, that’s true. But for some people finding a job isn’t so easy’
‘Why?’
‘Well, he might have had a job once. Maybe he lost his job because the company couldn’t pay him anymore. Or maybe he lost his job because he became ill, or something bad happened to him. I don’t know’
‘Maybe he got fired because he was late for work’ (Perhaps I shouldn’t tell the girls I’ll get fired if I’m late for work!)
‘Well Lily, people lose their jobs for all sorts of reasons. And then maybe when he lost his job he couldn’t afford to keep his house any more. And maybe no-one else wanted to give him a job. Bad things like this can happen to people for all sorts of reasons. And besides’ I conclude, ‘He’s an old man. He shouldn’t have to work any more’

Lily absorbs all of this information. I think she’s confused by the man and probably a little frightened by his circumstances. He looks about Granddad’s age – he probably is someone’s granddad. He affects her in a way that other homeless men don’t, because his grandfatherliness is familiar to her.

In the February/March 2015 edition of The Green Parent magazine, Louise Kinnaird writes about nurturing empathy and compassion in children. Children as young as 14 months are able to offer help to others and by six or seven years old they can take another’s perspective. She writes, however, that it may take until late adolescence ‘for a child to begin to empathise on societal issues that they cannot relate to, such as homelessness or discrimination’ (p. 31).

I believe that, as parents, it is our duty to encourage and nurture empathy and compassion from the start of our children’s lives. We need to encourage kindness, helpfulness and sharing and, over time, our children will learn to put themselves in the shoes of others. We also need to have conversations with our children that encourage them to consider the feelings of others.

I don’t think Lily empathised with the man. She wanted to solve his problems. She was searching for solutions – probably to find a way to make him more like us. I wanted to introduce her to some of the underlying reasons why this man – and the many other homeless men and beggars we encounter – was begging in the street. I don’t know his story, but I wanted to offer Lily some possibilities, so she could begin to understand the challenges he faces and could begin to see past the unshaven, dishevelled old man on the side of the street, and see his humanity, his dignity and his fierce will to survive.

Another day I might have brushed off her initial probing questions. I might have been in a rush to get somewhere, I might have had something else on my mind. And if I had brushed her off, Lily would have lost an opportunity to look a little deeper into the world, and I would have lost an opportunity to know my daughter’s logic and rationality and concerns. But on this particular day I had the patience and the time to listen to Lily and to have a serious conversation. I don’t expect her to understand the root causes of poverty or homelessness (I certainly don’t). But I hope that by allowing conversations like these to take place, both of us can deepen our empathy and compassion for others.