I was busy enough shopping, stoking fires, writing letters home, but I didn’t feel I was experiencing anything of the country (aside from the scary stuff of course.) Well as it happened, Ken’s friend’s father was principal of a small country school, just outside Belfast, and I had a teaching degree. No matter that it was not for lower elementary, not matter that I had zero experience, he was willing to take me on while one of his teachers was gone to have a baby. If I wanted the job, he could pick me up in the morning and drop me off in the afternoon.
An Irish country school!
It sounded exciting. Some of my romantic ideas might materialize. I pictured myself teaching. The picture was sort of hazy as a matter of fact, because I would be teaching a mixed class, grades one through three.
But, I didn’t let something like that interfere with my fantasy. I would be gentle and inspiring both. The children would listen and learn. (What world did I live in?)
Of course not much of that happened.
Not only was the class multi graded (grades one through three,) students brought their younger siblings to class if they needed taking care of. That was normal. All the regular teachers just managed it. Well I sort of managed, but some days were pure chaos. The youngest kids demanded attention while the regular kids only half-listened to the lesson.
But I loved all of them.
They were so easy to love. “Oh, teacher, I could listen all day to the way you talk,” the girls would say. Kids from other classrooms would come in to borrow chalk or paper. They wanted to hear and see the American. I was an instant celebrity! (Ha!)
There was a major problem though. What I needed to learn and had no way of learning in the time I had was how to knit. I was supposed to teach knitting the next day. Knitting? I had no idea knitting could be part of a school curriculum. But there it was, knitting on Tuesday and Thursday.
What was I going to do?
I explained to the principal that I could not knit. He was astonished, but amiable. Nothing much confounded him. He suggested I hand the lesson over to one of the older girls. I felt sheepish and pretty lame, but what else could I do? She taught them (and me) how to knit scarves.
The school was great. The children were wonderful.
There were two tea breaks
(Mid morning and mid afternoon) and one lunch break. Time was easy. No American school would follow that routine. There were no bells, no only one hallway to the upper grades and the sheep next door often wandered over to look in the window.
Of course there were some downsides. There was no running water, so the children would go next door to fill the kettle. Also, no running water meant the obvious. Teachers took it in turn to make tea and supervise the use of the outhouses, one for the boys and one for the girls.
The teachers went next door to use the “inside loo.” Of course, this was in the seventies. The school has long since changed. It has water and inside loos and they only teach knitting once a week.
We went through the routine things, math, language, and social studies. I wasn’t at all sure if I was doing a good job. Were they learning? They came to school eagerly enough, but was that perhaps because I was strange? The kids seemed to think I was out of the norm for sure. It doesn’t take much with kids, clothes that are slightly different, a backpack instead of a purse. They eyed all of it and made note.
One day a student’s mother showed up to see me. “ I want to see this item Briad talks about, the back pack.” I showed her. “ Well, that’s a lot of fuss about nothing, “ she said. I agreed with her. “You do sound different though. Myself, I would have a hard time listening to you all day. It would make my head hurt.” So much for the American!
On Monday and Wednesday we were supposed to teach singing, Irish folk songs. I didn’t know any Irish folk songs aside from Danny Boy and did that even count?
Then I had a stroke of luck. I was American. The kids in my room were getting some small bit of cross-cultural education. I could learn Irish folk songs and they could learn some American folk songs. If I started with American folk songs, I’d have time to learn the Irish tunes.
“Okay, I said to them one Monday. “ You are going to learn something from America.
I’ll teach you a folk song. I did not play the fiddle, but I could strum a bit on a battered guitar we had toted along with us. I started strumming and singing Clementine. They loved it. They got up and danced around the room. The principal heard the ruckus and came in. Was I in trouble? Not a bit. He joined in. Triumph.
I always felt as if the other teachers were a bit wary of me.
Why shouldn’t they be? I wasn’t doing everything they did, certainly not in the usual way. But when I left for home at night, I turned back to look at the whitewashed building, the teachers leaving school to walk down the road to home. The school itself, a small thing among the sheep and cows out there in the country. The children who would likely grow up to manage those sheep and cows.
The girls would manage children. Maybe if the school survived, they would send their youngest along with the older child one day while they went to market. That wouldn’t be so terrible.
I taught for three months.
When I left, the children gave great hugs and said they would come and visit me. I bought an electric kettle so the fire would not need to be stoked to make the tea. Whether that was a success or not, I don’t know.
But there was this, as I left, the children came out and stood in the lane and they sang Clementine. “Ach,” the principal said, “you put some life into the place.”
I smiled. I wondered what the returning teacher would say when she saw that not one student had finished their required scarf.