Posted by Ronan Scully in Features.

What an emotional few days we had in the Scully household over the last week or so with our youngest daughter Sophie starting school as I am sure it was for many families the length and breadth of Ireland. It’s a huge occasion especially, I suppose, when it’s the last child in the family. It’s one of those special milestones in life. It will continue for all children and young people going to school and third level especially when you consider all the children in our world that don’t have the same opportunities as ours to receive a top class education. I hope that they, their teachers and lecturers, enjoy everything that they do and learn. Again a story from my Nana Scully’s prayer book might help to explain my thoughts on how sometimes children can teach us a lot.

The teacher who learned to teach the student who learned to be taught

As Mrs O’Connell stood in front of her 5th class on the very first day of school, she told the children a lie. Like most teachers, she looked at her students and said that she loved them all the same. But that was impossible, because there in the front row, slumped in his seat, was a little boy named Niall Mac. Mrs O’Connell had watched Niall the year before and noticed that he didn’t play well with the other children, that his clothes were messy and that he didn’t play well with the other children. It got to the point where Mrs O’Connell would actually take delight in marking his papers with a broad red pen putting a big “F” at the top of his papers.

At the school where Mrs O’Connell taught, she was required to review each child’s past records and she put Niall’s off until last. However, when she reviewed his file, she was in for a surprise. Niall’s first class teacher wrote Niall is a bright child with a hearty laugh. He does his work neatly and has good manners… he is a joy to be around. His second class teacher wrote Niall is an excellent student, well liked by his classmates, but he is troubled because his mother has a terminal illness and life at home must be a struggle. His third class teacher wrote His mother’s death had been hard on him. He tries to do his best, but his father doesn’t show much interest and his home life will soon affect him if some steps aren’t taken. Niall’s fourth class teacher wrote Niall is withdrawn and doesn’t show interest in school. He doesn’t have many friends and he sometimes sleeps in class. By now Mrs O’Connell realised the problem and she was ashamed of herself.

She felt even worse when her students brought her Christmas presents, wrapped in beautiful paper, except for Niall’s. His present was clumsily wrapped in a brown paper bag. Mrs O’Connell took pains to open it in the middle of the other presents. Some of the children started to laugh when she found a rhinestone bracelet with some of the stones missing, and a bottle that was half full of perfume. But she stifled the children’s laughter when she exclaimed how pretty the bracelet was and dabbing some of the perfume on her wrist. Niall stayed after school that day just long enough to say, Mrs O’Connell, you looked just like my Mom today and you smelled just like she used to. After the children left, she cried. On that very day, she quit teaching reading and writing and arithmetic. Instead, she began to teach children. Mrs O’Connell paid particular attention to Niall. As she worked with him, his mind seemed to come alive. By the end of the year, Niall had become one of the smartest children in the class.

A year later, she found a note under her door, from Niall, telling her that she was still the best teacher he ever had. Six years went by before she got another note from Niall. He then wrote that he had finished secondary school, third in his class, and she was still the best teacher he ever had. Four years after that, she got another letter, saying that while things had been tough at times, he’d stayed in school, and would soon graduate from NUIG with the highest of honours. He assured Mrs O’Connell that she was still the best and favourite teacher he ever had. Then four more years passed and yet another letter came. This time he explained that after he got his bachelor’s degree, he decided to go a little further. But how his name was a little longer—the letter was signed, Niall F Mac MD.

The story doesn’t end there. You see, there was yet another letter that spring. Niall said he’d met this girl and was going to be married. He explained that his father had died a couple of years ago and he was wondering if Mrs O’Connell might agree to sit in the place at the wedding that was usually reserved for the mother of the groom. Of course, Mrs O’Connell did. And guess what? She wore that bracelet, the one with several rhinestones missing. And she made sure she was wearing the perfume that Niall remembered his mother wearing on their last Christmas together. They hugged each other, and Dr Mac whispered in Mrs O’Connell’s ear, Thank you Mrs O’Connell for believing in me. Thank you so much for making me feel important and showing me that I could make a difference. Mrs O’Connell, with tears in her eyes, said Niall, you have it all wrong. You were the one who taught me that I could make a difference. I didn’t know how to teach until I met you.

Thought for the week

Let us all try as much as possible to make a difference for the good in one another’s life. Best of luck to all students, teachers and lecturers as they all try to make a difference.