CYC-Online 38 MARCH 2002
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Giving thanks for parents: A poem in March

Niall McElwee

I love books. I love reading. I love meeting people across the pages of a volume. I know that we read others so that we know we are not alone. I don’t want to bore readers with more news of our new son Conor – suffice is to say that he is dong very well and all you child and youth care people will be delighted to hear that he is meeting all his developmental mile stones and will not appear on an “at risk” register for some time.

This is a difficult time of the year for me. My mother died in April 1993 and I am now beginning that process of thinking about her and her influence on me as I approach her anniversary. She truly was a woman ahead of her time in the inward-looking Ireland of the 1960’s with a developed social conscience.

I can honestly say that this has been the single most difficult piece for me to pen in my life thus far and I will try to explain why.

Miss Higgenbottom’s Summer School for Wayward Children

I was at a poetry reading last night in the college and as I sat listening to the poet, Paul Durcan, I found myself drifting back mentally 27 years to a back-garden in Galway City. My mother, Christine, believed that learning was best accomplished when children wanted to be there. Her challenge, then, was to attract children to an outdoor classroom in our free time where we could ask what we wanted to ask, when we wanted to ask questions and in the knowledge that the teacher would not laugh at us. No child in that summer school was ever made to feel that they had asked just one stupid question – although how my mother kept her patience is beyond me! Why is the moon yellow? Why does the sun go away every night? Why do cows moo and sheep baa? Why do cars drive on one side of the road? Why is ice cream always white?

Originally, this class – called “Miss Higgenbottom’s summer school for wayward children” – was to be only for her six children. After a couple of days, however, all the kids on the street were in my back garden trying to draw butterflies, or were collecting soil for our science experiments, or playing with Samantha Simone the lazy feline mascot of the group, or writing essays (in cursive writing because we were big!) on animals who want to talk to humans and so on. These were wonderful times and even then we children knew it. How as an educator, I appreciate them now.

Miss Higgenbottom’s summer school lasted for five years and each year we drew more children to our yard. My youngest brother, Shane, got the bright idea that we could charge the neighbours five pence each for the facility and, of course, kept my mother in the dark as to his enterprising nature. That brother now is a successful newsagent and I swear he got that idea as a seven year-old in our back garden.

From boyhood to manhood and back

I had locked the door of my office as I was completing this piece lest a staff member or student call into me and see me tearful. No doubt there would be that embarrassed silence as we each tried to pretend that I, the male Head of Department who is always supposed to be in control, was actually crying like a baby in my solitude as I typed up this reflection. My God, I was even crying on company time!

And you know what? The reason I can tell you this is because Miss Higgenbottom taught us all 27 years ago that is a fine thing for a boy to let people know how he feels. He should not be ashamed. I thank her for this and hope that wee Conor, as Grant Charles has christened him, will be able to do likewise.

I honestly think my mother still watches over me. As I struggled to compete this column I got a call from Susan, my wife, in Limerick. She was feeding Conor and thought I might like to say hello to him on the phone. I like to think that Miss Higgenbottom reached down from her new spring school in the sky and touched Susan gently on the shoulder. One of her pupils was having difficulty finishing an essay and needed some encouragement...

I wish Conor could have known his grandmother. She would have loved him so. Perhaps he will get a sense of her in later years if he reads some of the rantings of his father back in 2002.

We owe so much to our parents. The poetry session made me reflect on the depth of feeling one can hold for someone who touched us for a time. I would like this column to allow me appreciate my mother, Christine, who is the reason I am in social care.

The Angel
Peter, the Priest ran the Easter marathon,
Brought you back a golden Angel.
We placed in on your lapel at 7 am.

And God
Must have thought it pretty damn odd
Your bombarding that Priest with a thousand letters.

Deepest friends, arriving at that wall
You both met danger, agony, suffering head on.
Blaming none, put up with your given fate.

I thought it ironic that gilded Angel
Glinting a little in the early April sun.
While you lay drugged and in pain,
Peter was out in America
Running the Boston marathon in your name.

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