My teacher died this week.
He taught me throughout my secondary school years – English and History. Mr Fanning corrected my misspelling of there for their. It was not the correction I remember, but the explanation.
These details you must get right, he said. Because they mean everything in an essay. Write ‘there’ for ‘their’ and you undermine all you have written to that point. Because that isn’t a spelling mistake; it’s a failure of understanding.
I became fast friends with there, their and they’re that day, and for deliberate reason. It was a gift my teacher gave me – something lasting, ostensibly so forgettable.
The educators we’ve had often recede into the deep background of our lives. They are there, but not present. Until suddenly they are – towering over us, with those lessons that they offered. The care that they gave us.
My teacher died this week.
He was a tall man from the country, with a fuzzy head of hair, who wore beige corduroy trousers and put his hands in his pockets. He was relaxed – a man easy in his own skin, unavailable for riling like some others. Sometimes he called for calm in the class and it didn’t come. He would appeal again – using reason and dialogue, not absolute power.
The classroom was a negotiated space. He knew this. And learning a negotiation too.
I was younger when he taught me History, and only knew that I liked its stories. Little remains in my memory of those classes, though the feeling of enjoyment lingers.
Once, I read my older sister’s text on The Age Of Discovery. I would have given my life to be on the Niña, Pinta, or Santa Maria, despite the scurvy. What it must have been for Columbus to arrive to those Carib islands for the first time; to see such colours; to witness teeming marine life so thick with shape and movement that the clear water was rendered opaque…
I read that Columbus was also named ‘Admiral of the Ocean Waves’, which I mentioned in class. A risk, when you’re fourteen. Mr Fanning caught the ball. Well done Brian, he said. Read beyond the text, my man. That’s where the interesting stuff lies.
My teacher was buried today, and I forgot to go to his funeral.
What sort of an excuse is that, Mr McIntyre? Forgot? I had a meeting at 10am, so I knew I’d be late. But then I only remembered at 11.05am, and quickly connected online to the church in Ranelagh. It was still broadcasting live. But the altar was bare. I screwed up. I was not happy with that. Nor would he have been. Sloppy is never good.
The most important lesson he gave me happened away from the classroom.
We were in a Christian Brothers school, where higher maths and football were the principal ways to carry home garlands. Being remarkable at neither, I assumed I was useless at both.
And yet, every student had to kit out on the field every week, to play class GAA. I’d often be picked next to last for whatever team, and would spend my time down the back in defence, talking and joking, to get over the embarrassment of being told I was crap. A common reason messers are messers, I suppose.
A foul led to a free kick, to be taken a few dozen metres from the goal. Mr Fanning’s ref. whistle blew and he called for me to come forward. I did, with no clue why.
He told me to take the free kick.
The game was important to those who were good. I had never taken a free kick in my life. He spoke to me in a low voice, suggesting I aim for just over the bar.
So I pulled back, and ran for the ball. And I fucking kicked the hell out of it. Up it curled, just above the goalie’s head, neatly placed in the corner above the bar to score a point. I had to admit it actually looked like I knew what I was doing.
Running back to my position in defence, I was already feeling differently. I don’t believe I looked Mr Fanning in the eye that day. Kids can’t recognise a moment of learning, right there in the lesson.
But I have often referred back to that incident throughout my life, for its unique nourishment. Until this day, I don’t believe I have articulated its meaning. Perhaps it is this: don’t underestimate yourself; you’ll be surprised by what you can do if you give it a try.
I have not met Mr Fanning in decades, yet I have inhabited many of the lessons that he gifted to me. I am a lover of words and the power they can convey when thoughtfully assembled; I am a researcher who revels in the depth of any subject; and although I have never kicked a ball since school, I expect I could if I tried. And kick it well, too.
Pádraig (Pat) Fanning died May 30th 2020. In iothlainn Dé go dtugtar sinn.