The Cork teacher calming troubled teenagers in the US

Working Abroad Q&A: ‘The kids that come to us are like cars that have gone off the road. We help get them back on track’

Brian O’Nuanain (centre) is from Cork City and now lives in Louisiana where he works with the US military, the National Guard. Here he is with some recruits

Brian O’Nuanain (centre) is from Cork City and now lives in Louisiana where he works with the US military, the National Guard. Here he is with some recruits

 

Brian O’Nuanain is from Cork City but now lives in Louisiana, where he works as a teacher who works with “troubled teens” at the Youth Challenge Program for the Louisiana National Guard Youth

Tell us about yourself.

I grew up in the heart of the northside of Cork City - I was one of the “Boys of Fairhill”. My mother, Eileen (85) still lives there in a former corporation house. I am from a family of seven, three of whom married French people, so the French connection is strong chez nous.

Did you study in Ireland?

I did an Arts degree in 1986 in UCC and having graduated, the best job I could find was doing wash-up and cleaning toilets in a downtown restaurant in Cork. A friend had found himself a job as a teacher in Zimbabwe, so I left for Africa to teach. I’ve been teaching overseas now for over 30 years.

How did you end up in the US?

I arrived here in Louisiana a dozen years ago. I’d been at home in Ireland for a few years having previously lived in Zimbabwe, France, England and the UAE. This chicken had come home to Ireland roost, but my American wife couldn’t settle in Ireland, so I moved to Louisiana to be with my daughter Aine, who is now doing science at Louisiana State University.

Have you done any training or studying anywhere else?

Along the way I picked up a H.Dip from UCG, a Master’s from Cambridge University and a Master’s from University of Jacksonville, Florida.

How did you end up working for the US military?

When I first got here I was a primary teacher who specialised in teaching writing, and I really loved it. After a few years of that I had the chance to start my own business - touring Ireland with busloads of Americans. However, the business failed, which is just as well. A chance meeting one day led me to find out about a vacancy for a teacher at the Youth Challenge Program. I’ve been here ever since, and it is unquestionably the best job I’ve ever had. It is probably the best job I ever will have.

What do you do now?

I work with a branch of the US military, the National Guard, in a program called the Youth Challenge Program. We specifically target teenage boys and girls who: have failed at school or were expelled, have been referred to us by the US Juvenile Courts, have been kicked out of home or have found their lives are at a loose end.

The kids that come to us are like cars that have gone off the road, overturned with wheels spinning, going nowhere in their lives. We help get them back on track, to rediscover a better version of themselves. We help give their lives some momentum and direction.

Having joined us, the cadets will remain with us for five months in a military-style, residential setting. No TV, no phones, no cigarettes or alcohol, and sometimes, no talking. It’s like a lengthy retreat: a time of reflection and reconciliation. For many of these kids, this is their redemption song; the chance to repair and rebuild their lives.

What does your day-to-day work involve?

My cadets are with me from 7.30am to 3.30pm, Monday to Friday. I teach all subjects, all ability levels. Some of them can barely read or do subtraction, while others are doing Leaving Cert-level work. We’re all about change here, so all that is important is that you’re showing progress in your studies and you are becoming a more likeable human being. We work as a whole-class on things like the class novel - they love The Giver and we had some great fun recently examining the music of Ireland’s Dermot Kennedy. They thinks he’s “freakin’ awesome”.

It can be a bit stressful when you’re dealing with an aggressive teenager, but there’s always a military official outside to remove someone who is being a complete jackass.

What challenges do you face in your work?

It can be a bit stressful when you’re dealing with an aggressive or confrontational teenager, but I can afford to remain calm as there’s always a military official outside in the corridor to remove someone who is being a complete jackass. Sometimes you feel like you’re an experienced bouncer outside a nightclub. You’re always trying to anticipate the problems before they arise, and when they do, you act to de-escalate the tension as quickly and as smoothly as possible. Overwhelmingly however, the boys do respond well to the “benign dictator” in the room. I give them that Cork Northside glare. It usually works.

You think your work would make good reality TV. Why?

Are you kidding me? We’ve got the three basic ingredients required for great drama: make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, and make ’em wait. The boys are a scream, we have a laugh every day. The circumstances of their backgrounds is sometimes quite harrowing; it’d bring a tear to a glass eye. And, finally, there’s the tension of wondering if he’ll make it through the programme, all the way to Graduation Day. If he does, cue buckets of tears of joy from cadets, friends, families and, yes, even some of the teachers.

Would you return to Ireland?

In one sense, I’ve never really left. I check The Irish Times first thing in the morning, every single day. I’m umbilically bound to Ireland, it is just that I can’t go back to live there, it’s too late. I’m “in too deep here”. But,’tis grand, I’ll get over it. I love my job, I really love my wife, Brenda, and my daughter is still here.

Are there any other Irish people in your circles?

My town, Ruston, is about the size of Tralee, Co Kerry, so it is too small to expect other Irish to be here. About an hour down the road there is another Irish couple, Paul and Karen, and we’re often “shoulder to shoulder” for the rugby matches. Karen’s from Dublin though.

What is it like living there in terms of accommodation, transport, social life and so on? What are the costs like compared to Ireland?

I have no idea how much our house is worth or how much property is in Ireland. There’s no real public transport here and in terms of social life, compared to Ireland, there’s not a lot to do here in northern Louisiana. It doesn’t bother me because the older I get, the more bookish I become. I’m trying to read Ulysses at the moment and studying calculus for fun - that keeps me really busy.

Is there anything you miss about living in Ireland?

The pub. A Guinness. The local. A daycent pint. The high-stool. A pint o’ plain. The boozer. A few scoops. And sometimes Taytos.

How has working there affected you?

Working overseas all my adult life has made me appreciate the privilege of being born, bred and buttered in Ireland. On a global scale, we seem to punch way above our weight in terms of our cultural impact. It’s really quite astounding.

If you work in an interesting career overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do.

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