Learn your place



Mrs Smythe watched as her new class trooped in. She had no major worries about this crop of young ‘uns; she often ate lunch with Miss Mahon, who was the teacher for the year below her own. Listening to Miss Mahon complain about her students gave Mrs Smythe a year’s warning of any troublemakers heading her way.

But this group had never left Miss Mahon crying into her cucumber sandwiches at 12:30 p.m. on a Tuesday morning. None of them had ever needed intervention from the Social Services or had parents waiting to slap a lawsuit on anyone that even thought of frowning at their child. There wasn’t even any that needed special assistance; it was just an average, steady class.

Mrs Smythe decided to spend the morning before the ‘Little Break’ organizing the seating for the year. The pupils would rotate through the seats as usual, so that they didn’t get too comfortable – or uncomfortable – with their desk neighbour. But she needed to make sure the desks were arranged in such a way that the pupils could remember how to rotate.

Once everyone had a seat, Mrs Smythe asked the children to write their names on the pieces of paper she handed out, telling them they would make name badges with them. When she said they could decorate them any way they wanted to, the children got to work happily.

As Mrs Smythe walked around the desks, peering over the children’s shoulders, she noticed Johnny Fitzgerald had written his name down twice: once in English and then he had written the Irish version, Seán Mac Gerailt, underneath. “Johnny,” she said, “we only need your English name. We won’t be writing any Irish in this classroom.” 

Johnny looked up at her, confused. “But Miss Mahon always got us to write both our names…”

“I know,’ replied Mrs Smythe, “but the Department of Education decided over the summer that children should not learn to spell any Irish words until they are in Third Class. So you have to forget every word you have so far learned to spell in Irish until you get to Third Class. Then you’ll have to learn everything all over again. Start another name badge quickly or you won’t be able to finish before break time.”

Mrs Smythe did not expect Johnny to pay much attention to her little rant against the Department of Education, but the poor boy was left horrified. He had loved learning Irish the last couple of years. It was like learning a secret code. Johnny’s father had been born in England and so didn’t know a word of Irish. His mother knew some of the language, but had forgotten most of what she had been taught in school. So Johnny and his big brother Paul used Irish at home as their own secret language. Their communications were still basic at this point, but they had so much fun with it. Johnny loved going home with a new word to show off. What would he do now if he wasn’t going to learn to spell any new words for another two years?

Over the next couple of weeks, Johnny kept asking Mrs Smythe to spell new Irish words for him, but she always refused. Eventually, she got annoyed with him and started to snap at him when he asked, so he stopped asking.

At home, Johnny got embarrassed as Paul’s ‘secret code’ notes to him became more and more complicated. He was still depending on the few words he had learned while in Miss Mahon’s class. He tried spelling things himself, but Paul ridiculed his attempts so much he stopped trying that too.

Johnny soon began to dread the Irish lessons. It was boring without the spelling and his attention wandered from what the class was doing. Mrs Smythe was quick to get cross with him too, as she had him labeled as a troublemaker due to his questioning about spellings.

After a while, Johnny began to act out when he was bored, because he knew Mrs Smythe would react – and at least things would be a bit more fun then. As the school year wore on, the battle of wills between them worsened.  Johnny had to be sent to the headmaster’s office a few times, and his parents even came in for a special meeting with Mrs Smythe.

Johnny did move up with the rest of his class at the end of that year which got him away from Mrs Smythe. But he had stopped using Irish at home with Paul. He had also begun to think of school as something boring, and continued to act up in class. By the time he got to Third Class, he was no longer interested in learning Irish spellings – in fact, the spellings then were the same as he had learned in Miss Mahon’s class, which just made the task even more tedious.

Throughout the rest of his schooling, Johnny looked on languages as a boring subject. It wasn’t until he was an adult and tried some evening classes in Spanish that he discovered he had a flair for languages. This discovery merely strengthened the nagging feeling inside him that he wasted his life by never discovering his potential until it was too late.

Mrs Smythe retired a few years after Johnny had left her class, but she always felt confident in her ability to spot a troublemaker.

The Department of Education officials continue to this day to argue over which theories they get to inflict on the children passing through their educational system. 

Occasionally, some children learn some things.


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