Is all that fire put out, that passion spent?


"DID you get the call?" That was one question that was fired at you by relatives, neighbours, or any old busy body when the Leaving Certificate results came out.

Everybody understood the lingo. There was no need for elaboration or elucidation. If you had got the call, your name went into the league of great achievers that preceded you. You were written into the folk history of the school, of the town/village; you were accorded an ungrudging respect. Your accomplishment had a ripple effect on everything; rating somewhat better than a long, hot summer or dollars in a letter from America. It bumped up the ratings of the school and was compared with establishments of learning in Listowel, Tralee and beyond. If it was one of those years when the number of calls went up several notches, they even got a special mention from the pulpit.

"The call", of course, was an invitation to be trained as a primary school teacher in Carysfort in Dublin or Mary Immaculate in Limerick. Fellas went to St Patrick's in Drumcondra, Dublin.

The fuss that was made of those who were called could easily be mistaken by an outsider as having some kind of extra terrestrial connotations. There was a definite feeling that those who got the call, were marked by God in some unique way; that you were singled out for special attention. There was a feeling that you would wander forever in Elysian fields, untouched and untroubled by the strife of life. It all followed on getting the call.

At least this is how it seemed from the window of one who, very definitely, was not called. I remember two girls going off one year in the back of the local hackney car and it seemed, that the entire population of downtown Ballybunion was waving them off. It was the nearest you got to imagining what a ticker tape reception in New York was like.

Looking back, it seems that the rest of us were just shuffled off in the Limerick bus or in the back of a neighbour's car. We went obscurely and without sensation. They were the heroes, the prize winners, the ones who reeked of an excess of success. They were the Lady Di's of their day. So great was their achievement that it automatically signalled an opening of all doors. They would travel. They would have good salaries. They would have long holidays.

Those were the days before free education was solidly established. Those were the days when your options, apart from primary teaching, ranged, from the civil service, to nursing, to the ESB or the bank, if you had pull, or Dublin Corporation, if you were really desperate. Nothing against the Corpo just that nobody knew enough about it to be absolutely sure it was okay. There was a general feeling that it was full of pushy Dubliners who knew the score.

Many girls who did get the call also got university scholarships but could: not afford to take them up. Also, so few people had been to university that it was a bit like Russian roulette, unless you had very clear guidance. What exactly would you do? What good was a BA without an H.Dip? You would have to live in digs or a hostel. Flats were spoken about in the tones reserved for conversations about mixed marriages; they generated a lot, of anxiety and while not strictly wrong, were definitely not strictly right either. Those conversations were accompanied by much sighing and eye rolling and worried hand wringing.

LOOKING back on this, I realise that new age kids think I am talking about another planet, or another century.

Not so. It is not so long ago when the "call" was one sure as hell way of making it successfully from the country to the city; from the world of scrimp, grind and emigration to one of being part of the Establishment.

But what did the women do with that call? What did they do, getting into the have it all world? What were, their priorities? Both a lot and damn all. Those I have kept in touch with are wonderful teachers; dedicated, hard working and enthusiastic. The down side is their almost total invisibility in the scheme of things. All those members of the INTO, meeting in Belfast next week, will realise yet again that, although their membership is made up of more than 80 per cent women, it is the men who will (mostly) do the talking. It is (mostly) the men who will shine. There are still more men taking up the principalships of schools - previously held by nuns, priests and brothers. Why?

By this time next week, unless you leave the country, you will be thoroughly glutted with teacher speak; their problems, their stresses and their strains. Everything they say and do - including the ASTI and the TUI people - will be covered in full and will top the news. There are two reasons for this. Firstly teachers are still held in extraordinary esteem by people who have generally become fairly cynical about many other jobs. They are rated way ahead of nurses, for example. They are better paid, the worries of their jobs are taken more seriously and more of them have cross jobbed - notably into politics, where things get done and decisions are made.

The other reason is the absurd over preoccupation Irish parents have with getting the best ever points and degrees for their offspring. We are still a nation obsessed with a one dimensional view of education. At the end of the day, most teachers and schools go along with the tide of demand from parents who all want their Johnnies and Joans to have a few letters after their names. Nothing wrong with that but at what price?

I believe they are doing it at a price that Miss Jean Brodie would not approve of. Going by memory and a recent TV profile of Muriel Spark, one of Miss Brodie's obsessions was the development of the full person. Did she not say something like - I synopsise - to hell with points and degrees if you achieve them at the cost of not looking beyond the Cliffs of Dover/Rosslare/Holyhead? Did she not say, "educo" means to draw out? It did not mean pushing reams of (often) meaningless stuff into children's minds, blocking off the refreshing air to let them breathe quietly and independently. Did she not encourage them to take risks with life, not to be afraid of it, to have confidence in their own views?

Somewhere along the way, the potential Miss Brodies were excised from the education system. They were sacrificed to score points. They were nailed down by pressures from parents and a system that has been rolling unmerrily along for years, gathering too much moss; killing off dreams and determined to push every child through the same system, regardless of whether they like it or not.

Is this what the "call" has translated into? Was the call only a vicious way of getting the best brains and moulding them into vessels of non thought; into teachers who would preach caution rather than excitement? Have those brilliant creatures who were waved off to their dazzling careers lost the shine of imagination along the way? What did it? And is it just something as simple as the fact that their are hundreds of people everywhere from judges, to doctors to housewives, who should not be in those jobs? Like the teachers, did they just go along with the crowd and let their ambitions be gradually eroded?

Are they content to live by slogans like: "Let us not make waves unless it is about money and early retirement"? I don't know. Do you?