Next week schools throughout Ireland will celebrate Catholic Schools Week, reflecting and celebrating the words of Jesus, “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.”(Jn 10:10) It set me thinking about my own experience of being educated in the Catholic School system and of the teachers I encountered who dedicated their lives to helping pupils fulfil their God given potential, to live life in all its fulness.
I remember with particular fondness the wonderful start I got at my infant school, the ‘Wee Nuns’, now the Aras Cholmcille St Columba Heritage Centre, in the grounds of Long Tower Church. I spent three years there, years that I remember very fondly. They were faith-filled days, busy days and full of fun and friendship. I developed a great love of learning and experienced such kindness and care from the teachers. I still remember the excitement of my first day and couldn’t understand why one red-haired little boy cried his eyes out for a good part of it. But then four of my brothers had been pupils before me and I couldn’t wait to be part of it all, to finally be able to climb out the windows (it was a low window which acted as a door) from the primary one classroom and to play in that wonderful sandpit!
Our family had lived in Long Tower Parish for a number of years but we moved to Carnhill in 1970. Sister Marie-Therese, the principal at that time, had met mammy one day and said to her, ‘Sure Mrs Ferry, you’ll still be bringing Thérèse to us, won’t you? ‘My mother deeply appreciated and still does the ‘great start’ the school had given to ‘her boys’ so my father drove me in from Carnhill every morning in his milk van, not always arriving on time however! I never remember any of the teachers ever saying anything to me about being late. They just understood.
Miss Kennedy, later Mrs Woods, was especially kind and often walked me safely to the bus stop in Foyle Street after school-that was faith in action! When I look back now, I realise it was at the height of the troubles and the school’s pastoral care extended well beyond the building and the 3 O’ Clock bell. I remember one day walking with Miss Kennedy down Bishop Street and she asked me what I would be doing when I got home. When I told her it was mammy’s birthday, she took me into Austin’s Department Store and bought me a present to give to her!
And then there was Sister Marie-Therese, my Primary Three teacher as well as the principal, someone whose witness and example, as a teacher and leader, influenced my own decision to become a teacher many years later. She encouraged all who passed through her doors to believe that anything was possible in life. Jesus was very much at the centre of her educational philosophy. She treated us all the same, encouraged us to appreciate who we were and to know and use the gifts we had been given by God. Of course, now, I also realise this stemmed from a deep faith lived out selflessly every day. She was dedicated, firm when she needed to be, but always fair and compassionate. All she did was rooted in the Gospel message of Jesus and she wanted the children of the ‘Wee Nuns’ to know Jesus so they could reach their full potential and in turn live lives of service, helping to make the world a better place for others. She taught us so much more than reading and arithmetic!! I remember one day without any parental permission forms or risk assessments, she took us down the big steep steps leading away from the school and into the backyard of one of my classmates. The family kept a donkey and we just couldn’t believe our eyes! Can you imagine that being allowed today!!! We read outside when the days were sunny, she dispensed tea from what seemed a huge teapot at lunchtime and words of encouragement by the bucket load, taught us to pray throughout the day and prepared us for the sacraments, even giving us a ‘dry run’ for First Confession using her office as the ‘Confession Box’!
Some years after I started teaching myself, I ran into Sister Marie Therese at a school gathering. There was the usual welcome, a big hug and everyone in the room heard her say, ‘My star pupil everyone, Thérèse was my star pupil!’ But I wasn’t the only former ‘Wee Nuns’ pupil at the gathering and sometime later, when I was standing at the other side of the room, I could her voice clearly saying, ‘My star pupil, Margaret was my star pupil!!! She had no favourites!! We were all stars in her eyes.
Perhaps this week you could take time to remember a teacher or teachers who helped make those words of Jesus a reality for you and to say a prayer in thanksgiving for them and if they are still alive, let them know the difference they made in your life.
Thérèse Ferry is Diocesan Advisor for Primary Schools, Diocese of Derry.