Life is very difficult for young secondary teachers in Ireland these days. Permanent positions are hard to come by so newly qualified teachers experience a great deal of insecurity. The present generation of teenagers are a more challenging bunch than their parents’ generation. Staffrooms are increasingly stressful. It was not always thus. Those of us who entered the profession in the years after the introduction of free secondary education in 1967 were more fortunate. A flood of new pupils into the system required a flood of new teachers. The numbers of nuns, priests, and brothers had been in freefall in the wake of Vatican II. There were relatively few older lay teachers in the system but in my old school we were lucky to encounter one or two older staff members who became ‘mentors’ to some of us. A former colleague, a Science teacher, tells me she regarded an older person in the Science department as a mentor from her arrival in the school. My own ‘mentor’was Benda Carroll.
Benda taught French and, before it was expunged from the curriculum, Latin. She was well read, erudite, witty and permanently good humoured with an extraordinary gift for mimicry. I recall one parent describing her as ‘a lady’. She graduated from UCD in 1946 where former Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald was one of her more celebrated classmates. Her older sister Mary beame a legendary teacher of English and developed a fine library in another school. (See The Irish Times – Saturday, May 16, 1992, Arminta Wallace, An Irishwoman’s Diary) Benda and Mary were the adored daughters of Martin and Mary Carroll who came originally from Co Clare and brought up their girls in Glasnevin. Martin worked in the Customs and Excise and both parents were of an academic leaning. Mary and Benda inherited their learning, wit, good manners, honesty, religious faith and extraordinary Christian charity from their parents. Benda’s unusual name was her sister’s childhood rendering of her given name, Bernadette. There were those who persisted in calling her Brenda but Benda was far too polite to set them right. She referred to herself as ‘Benda Carroll, spinster of this parish’. Her experience in education was long and varied. She had begun her career in the long defunct Sacred Heart Convent in Leeson Street and spent the last few decades in our more socially mixed establishment. The wisdom acquired over the years was shared with us.
We in the French department developed the habit of turning to Benda for all knotty matters of grammar and vocabulary. She never failed to give a comprehensive explanation. We experienced some slight panic when she was about to retire and wondered what we would do when confronted with difficulties in the future. On her departure she presented us with a large Dictionnaire Larousse which did the rounds of the staffroom for years afterwards and, I believe, still does in its more dilapidated condition. We tried to reciprocate her kindness in small ways by assisting with modern technology. She would ask us to ‘drive’ the video recorder for her. But, in the main, she was our mammy. All pupils were called ‘darling’. Each teacher had a nickname. My more organised colleague Mary, who marshalled teachers and pupils through tense times such as the oral French examination, was ‘the Minder’. I was ‘the Lamb’, perhaps a just reflection of my greater dependancy. A rather solemn chaplain from the early days was dubbed ‘Mr Joyboy’ after the senior mortician in Evelyn Waugh’s ‘The Loved One’. She took a huge interest in all of us, in our families and even our dogs and cats. She was a great animal lover herself. She and Mary had cats with names from Shakespeare, most memorably Orlando and Bianca whose name was promptly changed to Bianco when it was discovered she was of the other gender. She lavished attention on her neighbour’s dog Kane, a Doberperson, according to Benda.
Teachers as well as pupils learned a great deal from her. She would comfort us with classical wisdom. ‘ Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis’ she would say. Benda gave of her time and her substance to many in the travelling community. On one occasion I left some outgrown baby clothes of my own children in her press for her traveller friends. The next day I found a thank you note in my own press. It read ‘Gratia ago tibi, o matrona superba’. This ethos of kindness and courtesy was transmitted to the pupils.
Benda’s learning transcended her own subjects. She had none of the shallowness of the modern specialist. She had an instantaneous and apt quotation for every situation. On one occasion we were visited by one Sr Anna, superior of the order which ran the school. I had momentarily forgotten about this event and expressed surprise on entering the staffroom to find the best china, biscuits and cakes laid out for the visitor. ‘What’s going on?’ I said. Without pausing from her corrections Benda intoned Pope’s lines
‘Great Anna whom three realms obey
Dost sometimes counsel take and sometimes tay’.
If we were a minute or two late for class and still rooting for our accoutrements in the staffroom she would mock admonish with ‘Where is thy leather apron and thy rule?’ Sitting beside her at a school talent competition required the ability to keep a very straight face. Once when we had listened to the same tune performed on the piano for what seemed like the umpteenth time she whispered sotto voce ‘the anthem of the well brought up child’. When I went home for a weekend in the country my mother would say ‘We’ll make a cup of tea and then you can tell me what Benda is saying these days’.
Benda kept us bouyed up in difficult times with her unfailing jollity. It has been my good fortune that my lot was cast with people like her. She died just over three years ago and I miss her very much. I fancy she is having many a chuckle in the Elysian Fields and maybe even raising a smile on the brow of some of the more sober saints.
All staffrooms should have a presence of this kind. A mentoring scheme might be a suggestion for those now starting out in a more challenging environment. There are now great numbers of young teachers once more, the last generation having moved on to la retraite in the wake of the Croke Park agreement. A mentor might help keep spirits up and help get young people over these times of grim austerity.
Meanwhile in memory of Benda and Mary Carroll here is Fauré’s Requiem In Paradisum
In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.