To every child I struck when I was a teacher . . .sorry
I REMEMBER HOW I would feel when there was a revelation about sexual abuse of children by clergy, here in the US where I have lived for the past 19 years, in Ireland or anywhere else. I would rail at the smug complacency of lace-bedecked monsignori or their mitred higher-ups. I could only imagine the plight of the children.
Recently, on the US Sixty Minutes programme, I watched Archbishop Diarmuid Martin openly weep as he contemplated the awfulness to which such young children had been subjected. His compassion, to my astonishment, opened a wound in my own soul. It was not in the terrible area of child sexual abuse, I am glad to say, but it did relate to my behaviour towards children in my care long ago. Although mine was a far milder form of mistreatment, it too involved an abuse of power.
For more than 12 years in the 1970s and 1980s, in Co Dublin, in Co Cork, and on a coastal island, I was a primary-school teacher. During most of that time, I would slap the children, usually for what I considered bad behaviour. I sometimes overdid verbal reprimands as well, but used to tell myself that in what I said, I never diminished a child. I think differently now.
At the time, as far as I know, no teacher I knew would have condemned me for striking children: many were practitioners themselves. Few parents objected and most acquiesced, according me a respect that I felt I hadn’t earned.
In my first year teaching, in the presence of an inspector, surrounded by a few children at a low table, I lightly smacked the back of the hand of a small boy – I cannot even remember why. An inspectorial eyebrow was raised, but nothing further happened. I limped blindly through these first three years of teaching, feeling inept in my work, before taking time out to travel to Europe for six months.
On my return, I re-entered the profession, this time in a small village school. I punished children with a slap on the hand with a stick when I thought it appropriate. I stayed for two and a half years, and then studied English and philosophy at UCC. Afterwards, I spent a happy, slapless year as a substitute teacher working with disabled children in Cork.
Reading Little House on the Prairie as a child had planted in me a romantic notion of teaching in a one-teacher school, so subsequently I found myself principal, staff, caretaker and teacher of eight classes in a one-teacher school on an off-shore island. The first morning, as I led the children in making the sign of the cross (as Gaeilge), at “the Son”, a hand went up.
“Ní Gaeilge na háite atá agatsa . . . ” Dissent had begun, and, as time went on, the independence of the island people, their frequent scepticism of outsiders, and their respect withheld unless earned conspired to change my attitude to the painful form of communication I used.
One day, a few of the older boys were “in trouble” with me. They expected that, later on, I would put the stick on my table to use.
During the break, I found it broken into several pieces, and lying on the floor of my car. My first instinct was admiration for their chutzpah (I would never have had the gumption to do such a thing at their age). I also found a certain eloquence in their action; I had been disarmed, in more ways than one. Months later, two American tourists came into the school; I will never forget the look of horror on their faces when, as we chatted amiably, they spotted my “weapon” on the table. I would not have described it in such terms then – I do now.
Those looks of horror were a gift to me, a gift I took a long time to truly receive.
I saw the light one day, just as I was about to mete out a punishment by stick. I was angry, justifiably so, I thought at first. Then I reflected: “What if someone saw me now? I feel ashamed. Even if no one were looking – I shouldn’t be doing this.”
I was through with slapping children, and never did again.
So, to every child I struck when I was a teacher, I now say: I am sincerely sorry I hit you. I used the power of my so-called authority as a teacher, to communicate to you in a cowardly way, when I failed to communicate with you in other more effective ways. I was ignorant of the harm and hurt I was causing you, blind to my own deficiencies in dealing with children. If you are now one of these adult children, I invite you to communicate with me about my having slapped you as a child when I was your teacher. I want to hear what you have to say, and to apologise individually. I am now in my 50s. I do this not out of self-indulgence or guilt, but so that I may take responsibility for my actions in years gone by, and hopefully to open some sort of dialogue on the subject.
The teacher has learned a lesson.
Anybody wishing to contact Eileen O’Brien on this subject can do so on firstname.lastname@example.org until the end of May. This is a temporary address set up by The Irish Times on her behalf