People often remark to me that moving to Dublin from the far north of South Africa must be very strange. Until June last year I was running a school on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, just outside a ‘wild west’ town called Vryburg. The children at the school often came from abusive backgrounds, many from extreme poverty, many from totally dysfunctional families. The weather was 40 degrees in summer and the winter cold was biting, if brief. There was a huge drought when we were there, now broken by the fickle heavy rains, which are rarely in half measure. We had 1200 hectares of semi-desert farming land and a herd of cattle and no shortage of snakes, even if they were only seen on the odd occasion. Monkeys played in the vegetable garden and made sure that there was nothing left worth eating. On Saturdays the workers were often at funerals and I attended many in my time there or visited the homes of those bereaved who had connections with the school. Life is cheap. I was held hostage in my office for three hours, chased cattle rustlers through the veld with armed police, put out bush fires, witnessed staff brawling after a trip to Soccer City to watch the Chiefs v. the Pirates, the biggest game of the season…ok, so it was a bit different.
St. Columba’s is not like that. It is cold and windy and as green as you could imagine. The pupils here are – let’s be honest – relatively privileged and the facilities may not be perfect, but they are still wonderful by most standards. So you might have thought that there are really no similarities between this job and my previous employment or that nothing that I had experienced before would be transferable to where I am now.
That is not my experience. The environment may be totally different, but people are people and children are children. Parents in both schools want the best for their children; pupils all want to know that they are valued and safe; leavers are concerned about universities courses and what career paths to choose; staff want to feel supported by the man at the top and they genuinely care about the young people under their care. Human nature in Ireland is the same as that in South Africa…kids have the same capacity to come up with imaginative excuses whatever their economic background.
Perhaps one difference is the level of expectation. Here parents expect their children to work hard, get a good Leaving Certificate and go on to a good university. And that makes sense because the parents themselves did something similar and so did their grandparents and so on. But imagine that your parents never finished school and that no one in your family has ever been to university. Imagine that the height of ambition of those in your community is to wear a decent pair of trainers or to get a job as a security guard. Perhaps you aspire to more but you are told that no one from around that area has ever done that and to stop having unrealistic notions of what you can achieve. So you lower your expectations to fit in with those around you.
It is very hard for young people out there to achieve their dreams, but it is amazing when it happens and I have seen young people do astonishing things. I know a young lady who was an orphan from a poor community, who came to the school on a bursary. She got an opportunity to go on an exchange to the USA. Her host family were so impressed with her that they offered to pay for her whole tertiary education back in the States. She did her degree out there and then an MA at the London School of Economics. She is now back in South Africa and has set up a foundation to mentor young people, through a whole series of projects in remote rural areas. She is truly remarkable, but she does have detractors, people who think she has got above herself. It is not easy to aspire and to be different. People will always shoot you down.
Perhaps those experiences have given me a very high level of expectation of what the pupils of St. Columba’s can achieve, children who have been given every advantage and have had few battles to fight. It has certainly given me a lack of patience with those who waste their talents and opportunities. Happily I don’t think there are many of them here. This place is full of remarkable and talented pupils who are going to achieve great things. I make no apologies for setting the bar very high and I encourage all my staff to do the same. If we give your children a hard time it is not because we don’t love them. It is because we do.