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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The education question

‘Will you send your children to school for winter?’
‘You can follow the National Curriculum online’
‘There are books you can get to teach your children’
‘Don’t you worry they’ll fall behind?’
‘How do you know you’re teaching them properly?’
‘Are they getting a full education?’

DSCI3942It seems everywhere we go, we encounter people who have opinions about how we should educate our daughters. They are all well-meaning (I think); none of them have spent any time with Lily and Katie, and have only seen them in our company, or on the boat; and, invariably, they are more interested in the girls’ education than in the girls themselves.

People who currently home educate their children, or who home educated their now-adult children, never make these comments or ask these questions. With the current home-educators, we talk about our experiences and share ideas; and the ex-home educators tell us what wonderful experiences their children had when they were young. The people who make these comments either do not have children, or have children who were educated in the conventional school system.

We don’t follow a curriculum, state produced or of our own making; we don’t use any ‘how-to’ books; and we don’t worry that they’ll fall behind. We don’t measure our daughters’ progress by some arbitrary criteria of what a four or five year old ‘should’ know. And we don’t question whether we are teaching them ‘properly’.

And here’s why. In the UK children start school from the age of four. Most have already been in government-funded nursery programmes since the age of three. In Scandinavia, children start school at six or seven. Scandinavian children at seven learn what British children learn at four and five. Swiss children start school aged five, but have two years of ‘socialising and play’ before they are taught reading, writing, maths, etc. British children learn these almost from the start. The point I am making is that there is no one ‘proper’ model of state education. Scandinavian and Swiss adults are not somehow less educated or capable than I am because they were introduced to reading and writing at school two years later than I was.

When I think about my own education, I excelled at some subjects and ‘fell behind’ at others. On reflection, I suspect that some of that ‘falling behind’ was due to my own obstinacy and belief that I ‘couldn’t’ master Maths or Irish or Physics. School reports confirmed that I ‘couldn’t’ do Maths, and I built a barrier between myself and those subjects, closing my mind and refusing to learn them. So I ‘fell behind’. And while I regret my inability in certain subjects (and am eternally grateful to Julian for opening up the wonders of maths to me), I still, somehow, managed to (a) get a PhD, (b) make a living in multiple jobs, (c) pay my bills, budget, measure and weigh stuff, and (d) while travelling in Japan with my sister, converse about the people around us in Irish. I haven’t done too badly for myself, despite the ‘falling behind’ I did.

So, what does a full education look like? Despite national and school curricula, all children within institutional education do not learn the same things. I managed to get all the way through primary school without once being taught a musical instrument. Somehow, each year I ended up in a class with a teacher who didn’t teach the tin whistle or the recorder. Most of my friends, on the other hand, as we got shuffled around year after year, separated for one year and back together the next, managed to get at least one year of learning a musical instrument.

During my five years in secondary school I was lucky enough to have two wonderful Geography teachers, Mr. Byrne and Mr. Osborne, who fuelled my enthusiasm for the social sciences. Maybe I would have become a social scientist without those two inspirational teachers. My sister had a different Geography teacher, and she quickly soured to Geography. I recently talked to a friend whose 17-year old daughter had the same Geography teacher as my sister and her experience with that teacher has been the same. She went from enjoying Geography for the three years she was taught by Mr. Osborne, to hating it with this other teacher, and achieving a very poor grade in her Leaving Cert exam. The point I’m making is that despite curricula, schools are made up of individual teachers. There are good teachers and poor teachers; and teachers who bring their own interests (such as teaching music) into their teaching. All teachers teach differently.

We are not interested in comparing Lily and Katie to other five and four year olds. Why would we? Why would anyone compare their children to anyone else’s children? Whether five or ninety-five, we are all individuals, with our own interests and aptitudes. Children are not empty vessels into which a certain amount of knowledge should be poured by the age of five or ten or fifteen. Exams are designed to test how much poured in knowledge can be poured out again. So I don’t worry that Lily and Katie have received their quota of maths or reading or science appropriate to their age. Because what is age-appropriate in the UK or Ireland, is not the same as what is age-appropriate in Scandinavia or Japan or Canada.

What I have discovered is that Lily and Katie have very different learning styles. What works with Lily does not work with Katie. Their pace of learning is different, and their learning interests are different. There are things that Lily could do when she had just turned four, that Katie cannot do; and there are things that Katie can do that Lily, aged five and a half, still cannot do. So why worry about age-appropriateness. With very little ‘formal’ teaching (usually less than half an hour a day) they are learning the basics of reading, writing and maths at a tremendous pace.

So when I’m asked about curricula and falling behind and doing things properly, I nod and smile. It’s simpler than trying to explain what we do to people we will most likely never meet again.