One rainy afternoon, when I was about 11 years old, our class teacher at my Catholic primary school – I’ll call him Mr K – was off sick and, as was common in those times, one of the mums from the parents’ association took over to fill in. Mrs O’Brien was the mother of a rather immature dirty blonde boy called Michael (not their real names). I had been wary of Michael for some time because, the previous year, it had somehow transpired that he had written “I love [my name]” on his ruler in maths class and everyone knew about it. Despite my mortification with her son, Mrs O’Brien was an awesome substitute teacher. She was a pillar of calm and reason amidst the screaming, maddening outbursts of the pupils and dealt with every end-of-the-world crisis without batting an eyelid. We spent a lovely afternoon conducting an art class in which we painted, cut, pasted, folded and decorated to our hearts’ content. At the end of the day, during the mad rush that was ‘packing up time’, I remember someone knocked over a pot of blue paint. It fell straight on the floor and spattered all over the carpet, splashes dirtying the table legs and spilling over onto the lino. “Oh my God!” exclaimed Michael, which was a felony offense at Catholic school (“Stop using the Lord’s name in vain!” was a warning frequently heard in and around our school grounds). Children were squirming everywhere, running around, laughing, kicking, jostling each other in hysterical yelps to avoid the blue liquid oozing over the terrain.

Mrs O’Brien just looked at her son and said, “It’s not God, it’s paint on the floor. Now let’s get this cleaned up.”

Thanks for teaching me to stay calm in a crisis, Mrs O’Brien. Right now I’m typing away madly trying to get this draft chapter finished and sent off to my supervisors. I have a headache, cracked lips, and a sore neck. I have the rest of my thesis to write before the spring comes. And I am doing my absolute best to hold on to my sanity, and see this through.

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