Jake O'Kane: Here's to the teachers who didn't give up on us boys in the 'slow' lane

I can see, looking back, that most of my friends in the ‘remedial class' would today be diagnosed as suffering from a learning disorder; back in the day they called us ‘slow'

Children diagnosed with learning disorders today were placed in remedial classes in the 1960s
Jake O'Kane

IN A world where everyone seems to be a genius, I have to admit I possess no qualifications for the numerous jobs at which I work. My lack of qualifications in no way reflects badly on my parents, who were very pro-education and worked hard to give their children every opportunity.

In my case, ill-health as a child coupled with the Troubles meant I’d a disturbed schooling, attending four different primary and four different secondary schools.

I fell so far behind at primary school I was classed remedial. Remember, this was the 1960s, a time when, if you’d asked a teacher what dyslexia was, they’d have answered ‘a city in Iran’. I can see, looking back, that most of my friends in the ‘remedial class’ would today be diagnosed as suffering from a learning disorder; back in the day they called us ‘slow’.

I take some comfort that I was considered to be at the top of the ‘slow’ learners, meaning I was given special jobs. Because I could read the numbers on classroom doors, I collected my fellow ‘slow’ students for our daily ‘special class’. This class involved us sitting in a sandpit, and even there I had a job, namely stopping some of my friends from eating the sand.

Don’t feel sorry for us in the ‘slow’ lane, we’ve done all right. My life since leaving school has proved I’m anything but ‘slow’; I’d simply missed out on basics such as grammar and arithmetic. I went on to run a small business, prosper as a stand-up comic, and write the column you’re now reading.

There’s a rumour another classmate even got into banking; admittedly, it was the Northern Bank and he was wearing a balaclava instead of a suit, but hey, what banker isn’t a crook?

And the guy I stopped from eating the sand? Well, he became a politician and gets paid for doing nothing. As for the rest of my class, most went into trades where they prospered working as electricians, plumbers and builders.

Having been classed as ‘slow’ in primary school, I lived up to expectations by spectacularly failing my 11-plus, ending up in a tough secondary school in north Belfast. I won’t name the school as it’s undergone a recent gentrification and is now called an academy; in my day, a better description would have been open air asylum.

Yet, in all the madness, we had exceptional teachers – men and women of the very highest calibre whose motivation had to be pure, as they definitely could have found easier, better-paid jobs elsewhere. I still remember their names after all these years; my A-level politics teachers Rosie Monaghan and Mr Hesketh and Mr Devlin who helped me win an all-Ireland debating competition.

Not that my school taught debating – that sort of thing was for grammar boys, not us plebs. I only entered the competition when my brother Conor, who’d entered himself, explained the prize for winning was an all-expenses paid trip to New York for Saint Patrick’s day.

To everyone’s amazement, including mine, I won the first round. This was a big deal for my old school where, if a pupil won anything, you could be damn sure they’d been wearing boxing gloves.

Presuming I’d be put out in the next round, the school asked to host the semi-finals, and to everyone’s bewilderment, I won again. All the stops were now pulled out and I was allocated an English teacher called Paul Devlin to act as my chaperone on the trip to the final in Trinity College Dublin.

Suddenly I was standing at a lectern in a Trinity College lecture hall in front of hundreds of competitors from the best schools in the country. Looking round, I realised I was the only boy not wearing a shirt, tie and school blazer. They all seemed to shine with the preternatural glow which comes from good nutrition and wealth.

I looked across at Mr Devlin. The poor man’s nerves were wrecked, his head was buried in his hands and he was unable to look up. I began to speak and felt an assurance and confidence that remains to this day every time I step on a stage; my six minutes passed in a flash.

And yes, we won – and by ‘we’ I include all those brilliant teachers like Mr Devlin who refused to give up on boys like me – boys who society tried, but failed, to stigmatise for being ‘slow’.

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