John Arnold: Let’s hope teachers and pupils will be safe in the weeks ahead

"I admire teachers in the world today. They are playing a vital role in the future of our society," so says John Arnold in his weekly column
John Arnold: Let’s hope teachers and pupils will be safe in the weeks ahead

Today's a day for a thought'; a friend of mine uttered those words down the phone line to me on Tuesday morning. We were up early on a gorgeous morning, milking and allied tasks completed by half past eight. I usually write a bit both late and early of a Tuesday. So it was with no fast broken that I took the phone call. We were discussing inspiration - 'twas perspiration by high noon with a blazing Texas-like sun! Anyhow the both of us are aspiring writers and we compliment and criticise as the need arises. I was telling him that getting subjects and themes to write a few words about each week is not always simple. My thoughts for last Tuesday were on bringing in hay, cleaning out a concrete yard and hopefully winning our GAA Club's Weekly Lotto Draw as the sun set on that evening. He agreed those were indeed lofty and noble ambitions but he felt not sufficient to keep my brain active. His suggestion was that I should decide that the day was right to pick a thought, any thought and concentrate on it. 'Right' says I' I'll have to go, I've a day's work to do, good luck' .We were drawing down big bales from the Chapel Field so I was just going up the boreen. One has to Yield and look left, right and then left. Over to the left I saw the Old School that I attended in the last century -school, education, teachers, student days, school holidays, back to school in this covid era. I was thrilled, suddenly my day was full of thoughts! Above Coneen na Sprioda I met the An Post van. He had two letters so I took them, it knocked five minutes off his journey around the rural roads.

It was great hay-day with sweltering temperatures so I had my first cuppa after ten. I opened the letter -the stamp with a youthful looking Queen Elizabeth told me 'twas from 'across the water'. A single page of blue notepaper, the letter was from a man in Torquay. When I was born in the late 1950's this man -from a parish neighbouring ours, was in College studying medicine. He qualified as a Doctor in the early 1960's and has been working in England for over half a century. I never met him. In the letter he told me of his family of whom I heard but never knew. He was just writing to thank me for items I'd written over the years, a lovely simple 'Thank You' note from a person who could be called a stranger to me. I often get letters like that, beautiful lines of memories, nostalgia and lines expressing contented bliss. Oh yes and his father was a teacher!- well says I to myself 'today is surely a day for a thought allright'

I remembered the words of Oliver Goldsmith;

The village master taught his little school; you know many of the teachers of yore are much maligned today. No doubt there were very violent and rough teachers down the years. Simply saying 'Ah well those were different times' can never justify physical violence against children. It was of course an era when corporal punishment was allowed, some might even say, accepted as the norm. We've all heard stories where a child got a right few slaps in school, went home and told the parents and they doled out more punishment! I suppose the logic was that ' if you were hit by the teacher you deserved it'! There are bad apples in every barrel and the teaching profession was probably no better or worse than others. Discipline was seen as the way to go -'children should be seen, not heard' and all that. I must admit I enjoyed school. We had some tough teachers but no real tyrants. We got slaps on the hand. If you pulled the hand as the stick was coming down you got the wallop on the back of the hand. Being locked in the 'coal-hole' and tied to the teacher's table with strong twine at lunch time were other forms of 'correction'.

Nowadays I am reliably told that the practise of learning things by rote or 'off by heart' as we used call it, is frowned upon. We learned Tables and the like until we could repeat them with our eyes closed. Some may question the efficacy of learning things simply by memory and maybe not understanding the meaning. My idea of that was; learn it first - the meaning will come later on ! It must be fifty five years since I learned 

‘Tá Tír na nÓg ar chúl an tí, Tír álainn trína chéile, Lucht cheithre chos ag súil na slí, Gan bróga orthu ná léine, Gan Béarla acu ná Gaeilge. Tá cearca ann is ál sicín, Is lacha righin mhothaolach, Is gadhar mór dubh mar namhaid sa tír, Ag drannadh le gach éinne, Is cat ag crú na gréine.’

That poem, Cul an Ti was written by Seán Ó Ríordáin and I loved it. The magic world in the back garden populated by birds and animals that could speak neither English or Irish and the cat 'milking' the sunshine. Just the other day I say a semi-wild cat in the haggard of a grand sunny day doing exactly that. The cat was lying on the grass twisting and turning as if getting the last 'drop' of the sun's rays. I was talking to a medical person lately about the human brain and memory. I'm a bit afraid that if children in today's world ar too reliant on 'modern technology' to do their thinking for them it will have dire consequences. The human brain, I'm told resembles a cauliflower with so many parts with different functions. Memory is vital and I feel the old rote learning got the 'young brain' up and active. Do you remember long ago in shops you could come up to the counter with ten or twenty items and in a flash, without pen or paper, the shop assistant had the prices added up. Who do you see practising mental arithmetic nowadays? About forty years ago I was taking part in Scor, the winter Talent competition of the GAA. It was an East Cork semi final in Knockraha with the late Dan Kenneally of Dungourney as Fear an Tí. We were a bit short of competitors the same night and I was 'persuaded' to go on stage for the recitation section. In fairness I'd say I had about ten minutes to prepare. From the recesses of the brain I recalled a poem I leaned in national school in fifth Class 'The Ballad of Athlone' by Aubrey de Vere; 

Does any man dream that a Gael can fear,

Of a thousand deeds let him learn but one!

The Shannon swept onward, broad and clear,

Between The Leaguers and the broad Athlone.

"Break down the bridge!" Six warriors rushed.

Through the storm of shot and the storm of shell.

With late, but certain victory flushed.

The grim Dutch gunners eyed them well.

The next line was; 'They wrenched at the planks mid a hall of fire,' but I got a bit confused after and came out with 'They fired at the wrenches and the plank went on fire'. I knew I was lost so there was nothing to do but go back to 'Does any man dream... but when I came to the bridge I got stuck again. I bowed and departed gracefully!

Goldsmith wrote of The Village Schoolmaster that Lands he could measure, terms and tides presage and I recall Billy Barry telling me years ago that his father Patsy Barry NT was often called upon to measure plots of land because he 'had the chain' - an actual chain for measuring. It was 66 feet (22 yards) long. There are ten chains in a furlong and eighty in a mile An acre of ground is the area of 10 square chains that is, an area of one chain by one furlong.. Many's the time his father measured out an acre and 'pegged' the ground only for the 'fly boys' to come along by night and move out the pegs a few feet! That's why we have so many 'big acres' in Bartlemy!

I admire teachers in the world today. They are playing a vital role in the future of our society. They bring joy and wonderment, learning and questioning into so many young lives. Let's hope all our teachers and pupils will be safe in the weeks and months ahead. I do marvel at the dedication and sense of vocation that teachers have in abundance. Oliver Goldsmith was spot on;

And still they gaz'd and still the wonder grew, That one small head could carry all he knew.

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