I call it ‘my sustaining story’: this is the line you repeat to yourself when you forget why it was you first got into the teaching game. When Student Teachers arrive, and when NQTs clock in on their first day, I ask them to tell me their sustaining story. You will have dark days, I warn them: times when the little kiddies don’t share your love of algebra, when the observed lesson goes against you, when your secretary of state calls you part of the Blob. You might need to remember that you are not simply a masochist, that you had good intentions once. When facing your Dementors, you need to keep in mind a powerful, happy image: that’s your Patronus, or ‘sustaining story’.
Mine is both intensely personal and entirely typical. Like for many teachers, my inspiration was another teacher. I have no way of knowing if she had a similar effect on others – the classmates I had then I never met again – but I am willing to bet she has no idea of the impact she had on me. She caught me at a particular moment in my young life and, by doing simple things, she did something extraordinary.
A little knowledge of Northern Ireland’s troubled history is needed here, for that is where I was born and where I was mostly brought up. My family is Catholic, and my parents are from the Republican strongholds of Dungannon and Coalisland in County Tyrone. When I was two, they took the counterintuitive decision to move us to Essex, which is where I spent my first year of primary school. Basildon was sunny and glorious: no subsequent experience can best my childhood memory of it. I could see my school from my bedroom, and my house from my school desk, and everything in between was open fields and ladybirds. On my very first day at school, Mrs Garrett (‘has a nose like a carrot!‘) put me on the second reading book, because I could already read the first. I fancied a girl called Angela, but she fancied Alan, so I danced instead with Linda. I dug for gold in the sandpit behind the music room. Every Friday the headteacher gave us a two-day holiday. Once my mother suggested I go to Northern Ireland with her for a short holiday, and I refused: I’d seen it on the news, with its soldiers and bombed-out shops. I knew I was from there, but I was scared to be there.
Eventually the reasons we had moved to Essex no longer held, and my parents moved their young family back to Dungannon, sending their three sons (I was the youngest) to the local Catholic primary. It was a grim place, run by an order of Brothers. A three-storey black-stone building surrounded by a high black-stone wall, it had no gym, no dining hall, no shelter from the rain for the boys eating their sandwiches. I was 6. It was 1974, the year the Troubles claimed its 1000th victim. To our classmates my brothers and I, having spent the previous four years in England, sounded just like the British squaddies who stopped the traffic and checked the car boots and stood nervously at street corners with their rifles pointed at the pavement. We were ‘Brits’, just as sure as the soldiers in uniform and the Orangemen on parade. A ‘Brit’ was the same as a ‘Prod’. It didn’t matter that my grandparents and all my cousins lived there, that my parents were born there, that we were not in fact Protestant. It only mattered that we sounded British. So we were beaten. Every breaktime, and every lunchtime, and there was no shelter.
My head bled, so Mrs McInaney allowed me to take my lunch in her classroom. She just let me sit in the corner while she got on with her own things. I don’t remember talking to her, and I don’t know if she informed the Brothers that I was being bullied. That might have helped. It might have helped, especially after my brothers and I tried to run away from home that Christmas, fearing we would be sent back to the school in January. (We were. The Brothers denied there was a problem.) Instead, Mrs McInaney let me sit in her room. And, when we were doing sums and she needed to pop out (it was always for ‘an apple’), she would stand me at the front of the class to sing to the boys. I had the voice of an angel, and the other boys would forget I was a ‘Brit’, just for a while, and some of them would ask permission to join me singing at the front. And Mrs McInaney gave me books to read, books from the shelf, that the other boys weren’t able to read yet, even Aidan whose Dad was also a teacher there. Whenever she needed a question answered, she chose my hand. At lunchtime she would let me hide, but there was no chance of that during lessons. Instead she let me shine.
I don’t know what Mrs McInaney knew of child psychology, or why she decided to celebrate my talents when another might have muffled them. That was not an era in which diversity was lauded, and that was certainly not a place in which difference was welcomed. And yet that was precisely what she did for me. My school was my misery, but in it I found my teacher.
Mrs McInaney knows nothing of this. My family left for another town and we did not keep in touch. She does not know that I kept reading, and writing and even singing. She does not know that she taught me every important lesson I had on tolerance and the power of opportunity. She would be surprised, perhaps, that I became a teacher in order to pass on the same lesson. No one ever told her that I speak of her to other children, in another place and time. And, when I doubt my reasons for doing this job, she is unaware that it is she who keeps me going.