Monthly Archives: June 2015

Teacher Awards 1985-1992

I had some really amazing teachers when I was at school.

Mrs Strugnell, Chemistry.  Her dry wit was legendary.  She made me love Chemistry.  Mrs Irwin, French.  The way she used to laugh with all her heart and soul at her own jokes was infectious.  She also really cared for all of her students.  Mrs Fleming, Physics.  She didn’t tolerate fools and there were a lot of fools in my class.  Her heart was far bigger than her occasional bite.  Miss Williamson, Mrs Prekop and Mrs Compton, Biology.  They were just lovely, even despite the fact that Mrs Compton was not that happy at our Epic Field Trip Pillow Fight.  Mr Richardson, RE, was an absolute gentleman.  He knew how to make sure you knew your 836-936 verses of the Bible.  He also threw in the odd slide show on the Holy Land if you could persuade him.  We frequently persuaded him.  Mr Hamilton, History.  He inspired me to love History at the age of eleven with the story of Sir Walter Raleigh.  He had a huge impact on me personally.  George Barclay (Legend) allowed us to do what we wanted as long as we threw the discus in the summer, jumped a wee bit and attempted to run.  I never ran that fast or that far, but many of my friends definitely did.  We simply loved athletics.  Alan Marsh, ‘the gaffer,’ told us to ‘shoot when we see the whites of their eyes.’  It was an inspirational talk that nearly saw me score from the half-way line.  I didn’t do much after that, but Mr Marsh will always hold the highest award that I can bestow upon him.  Best Coach!!!  I really appreciated Mrs Lennox’s no nonsense approach to teaching English.  She taught you how to succeed and gave you all the right advice and guidance.

And so, we arrive at the Awards Ceremony for the best Teacher at Cookstown High School, 1985-1992.  All were shortlisted.  The Award is shared.  Mrs Black, Maths.  She always had a belief in me.  I will always remember the day I achieved 100% in a Mathematics examination.  Of course, there was no great fanfare, but Mrs Black had a way of making you feel a great sense of achievement.  She is the reason that I was able to do Higher Maths.  I always respected her and never grumbled as she paced the room and swooped down on my many mistakes.  She was a very talented teacher.  She shares the award with Mr Gaffney, the greatest English and Drama teacher that we will never forget.  He was the ultimate human, friendly, warm and, at times, on the edge, some would say, always on the edge.  He threw his whole self into teaching and did everything to inspire those assembled in front of him.  It didn’t always work but he tried everything.  He educated me and twenty years of students on the music that mattered.  The one time I met him since I left school, in a second-hand book shop, he was telling me the books that I should buy and read.  He gave us many a drama and allowed us all to act in the highly ambitious Arthur Miller play, The Crucible.  Goodness.  I think I was pretty awful.  At least I was given the chance to give it a go.  Mrs Black and Mr Gaffney were both fabulous in their own way.

There were several reasons why I wanted to enter teaching.  There were more than a few who inspired me.


Walking in the footsteps of giants.

My father is a giant.  He was diagnosed with MS not long after I was born.  I still remember people making fun of the way he walked.  My dad ignored it.  I ignored it.  I was way too young to go out and instigate a fracas.  It still hurt.  I reckon that my dad eventually grew a dragon’s skin with wings to shield us from what lay ahead.  There was no way that he could shield us from life but he did his very best to prepare us for most of what came.

My mother is a giant.  She has dealt with every twist and turn that the MS diagnosis of her husband could throw at her, from diagnosis to full-time carer.  I can’t say that life dealt them a fair hand, but the way my parents continued to ensure that we had the best opportunities possible and through fully analysing my memory from where I stand now, it is clear that we have walked, learned and benefited from the giants who marked and directed our path.


The wise man built his house upon the silt.

If you were able to listen to all of the voices of poverty, desperation, conflict and destitution, how would it change you?

One mindset tells you that everything is fine.  The other tells you that something is wrong.

A simple test.  When you see migrants crossing the Mediterranean to desperately escape poverty and conflict, do you reach out a hand or clench your fist?

When you see poverty.  Do you act?  When you see desperation.  Do you care?  When you see conflict.  Do you weep?  When you see destitution.  Do you help?

I can’t give you a score for the potential that we all have within us.  I can only say that what originates in every individual connects to create a society.  Together, a society chooses where and how to build, be it rock, sand or silt.  There are ways around everything.  Then we reach out.  Do we see?  Do we hear?  Do we speak out?  Do we act?

The tears that I shed won’t heal every fracture, but the love that I hold for every human being will resonate beyond my existence.



That valve is pointing sideways.

I have agonised for the last few weeks about how to talk about the Troubles.

My life coexisted with the Troubles and occasionally our paths crossed.  I just remembered today that I once lived beside ‘the Captain’ on the Donegall (2 L’s) Road.  He occasionally came to inspect our impromptu water feature, the drains that flowed wonderfully into his back yard.  Mercifully, that was a matter for the landlord, some bloke from Larne called Rory.  He might have been called something else.  He might have been called Lolly.  I expect it depended on who was calling him.

To understand my life, you have to stand waiting for swimming lessons in the pool as a Primary School student.  Stand back!!!  Backs against the wall!  (literally)  The Catholics are coming.  We stood and awaited our turn in the pool.  The wonders of segregation.  Standing at the bottom of the road waiting for the RUC band to lead the cortege of John Eagleson.  Revising for examinations as the Teebane bomb went off.  Worrying about my best friend.

You also have to understand that University transformed my life.  On my first day of bluffing my way around the Campus, I was luckily invited to the office of the great Peter Blair to launch into a tutorial on this and that.  Who remembers such details?  We were all such good readers.  Seated with me were those, who by an accident of time and good fortune, became two of my greatest friends, Noreen and Paula, and that Yorkshire bloke who never sent me a Christmas Card, who was in love with a girl on the Donegall (2 L’s) Road.  Noreen insisted that we wait on her as we left the inspiring tutorial.  Thank God she did.  I was an annoying Unionist and my friends who were not annoying Unionists never deserted me.  And then another person who was not an annoying Unionist, Eleanor, joined our quartet.  It was never orchestrated.  It just was.  If you ever ask me about my life and the Troubles.  I will always remember how my friends changed my perspective on life.

They showed me how the human heart can grow a faulty valve.




Back Up Brazil 1995.

A little piece of nostalgia.

The 20th Anniversary of the Irish Methodist adventure in Brazil in 1995 approaches.  Unlikely as it may seem to some, I was a part of one of the teams.  I won’t go as far as claiming that I was a key part.  That would be overreaching.  I was a little cog.

It definitely doesn’t seem like yesterday to me.  It seems like the whole story developed in a different age and in a different time.  The dependancy on the online was just dawning and Queen’s still hosted a very valuable offprint collection, thanks chiefly to Mick Cox the Great.  (now appearing at the LSE)  Mobile phones were definitely shrinking, but there were no audible  murmurings indicating a need to carry a mobile phone on the tour.  It was a pleasantly pre-21st Century Technology era.

Arriving in Heathrow, some of our tour were carrying quite a lot of tools in their hand baggage and suddenly there was a weight restriction that could thwart our good intentions.  No worries.  ‘Everyone.  Take a few tools in your hand baggage.’  Mini-Sledge hammers, anything that you can think about that wouldn’t bypass current rules, were jammed into this and that backpack.  I am not entirely sure that security even looked to see what anyone was carrying.  Those were the days.  It was a real lark.  Really memorable.

We lounged on the thirteen hour journey on the plane and marvelled at the minus-50 temperatures freezing the wings of the plane.  Definitely a different age for me, with my current love of flying.  Flying into Rio was spectacular and all of those who weren’t sleeping across the seats or on the floor, as many were, enjoyed the landing.  Then we had the whole debriefing session.  Get ready for Brazil.  What you can and cannot say, what you can and cannot sign and all of those topics that those with a bit of Portuguese would be best to avoid.  I avoided all of the controversial topics successfully, as I was as skilled a linguist back then as I am now.  I still remember that bloke from Newtownards heading out on to the Rio streets to buy his fags.  ‘Sure, I come from Norn Iron.’  He was a great fella and a skilled plumber.

Our team headed to Salvador, Bahia, to a little place called Peri Peri.  We dug a damp proof trench out at the back of the church, contributed to a school that was built on top of the church and redecorated the finished project.  I chiefly dug and dug and dug.  Well, as a history graduate, I was a finely tuned thinker and a part-time guitarist.  Our leader, Rev. Jack Robinson (Accountant Extraordinaire of the whole tour), successfully managed to allocate us to our key tasks.  Occasionally, he unscientifically tried his hand at translation.  In the bog of muck that we found ourselves in, one of the intrepid team found a HUGE worm and decided that he would have a bit of fun by waving this at the locals, who cried, ‘Serpent!  Serpent!’  Turns out that the gigantic worm was an extremely poisonous snake that luckily didn’t bite us.  The Brazilian locals promptly killed the offending snake.  Their viewpoint.  All snakes are potentially lethal and two hours from a hospital that could have saved our lives, at that point, I shared their view.

There was so much that was shared by the local people on that trip.  They accommodated us in their houses.  They gave us access to their self-made shower.  They washed our clothes every day.  They cooked us the most spectacular meals.  The fried chicken and rice was amazing.  The local people were so friendly.  I remember one young person giving me constant stick in English.     It felt like Northern Ireland.  And then there was the trips to the Coca-Cola shop.

On the penultimate night, one of the houses of one of our hosts was violently attacked and robbed of a TV and Video and all other valuable items.  Jack (Accountant Extraordinaire) got us to arrange a collection so that we could replace the stolen items.  The money allowed us to successfully replace everything.  It was an amazing moment.

This was a key formative experience in my life.  Our young translators, Anna and Anna-Paula, became our great friends.  The Minister responsible for Peri Peri hosted us in his house, and we all dodged the bullets fired into the air as Brazil won a Copa America match.  The measure of faith and adventure that we all had as we ventured out was shared by the whole team.  The love that was demonstrated by the whole community in Peri Peri was truly astounding.

What is the keynote message?  Number one.  Seize and embrace every opportunity.  Number two.  Those who have faith can move mountains and those who struggle with faith can contribute.  Number three.  Always give life a go.




Holding back the years. Tears in Belgrade.

I have never wondered where the years have went.  The sense of becoming the person I am today was never a democratic process.  Circumstances created me.  Hello!!!

When I was reminded of the circumstances that created the Balkan puzzle, the rain began to fall.  I will always remember the tears as they journeyed down the hotel window.  I felt really sad.  A lot of tears and a lot of pain for everyone who was touched by the conflict that once raged.

You can never hold back the years but all of us should strive to make a difference.