It happened a long time ago. We were unhappy, my fellow teachers and I. We felt we were not appreciated. There we were slaving away every day in a hot classroom, planting the seeds of wisdom, nurturing them with the compost of inspiration and doing our best a produce a rich crop at the end of the season. And, yet, nobody loved us. So, feeling sorry for ourselves we threatened strike – we would close down the hot houses and abandon the little mushrooms unless our modest requests were met. As the current rumblings in the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland show, some things never change.
That year some bright spark in the union decided that, as part of our campaign for better pay and conditions, we’d hold a mass demonstration in Croke Park. And to encourage us to go to Dublin the union offered us subsidised rail tickets. Consequently, I travelled by train from Athenry.
I don’t remember much about the day itself apart from the fact that we were sitting in a vast, open air stand huffing and puffing, basically talking to ourselves. In retrospect, considering the normal fate of Galway hurlers and Mayo footballers in that theatre of broken dreams, we should have stayed at home for all the good it did us.
So, I got the bus back to Hueston Station for the return journey to Athenry and found a seat on the train. As I sat there reading a newspaper and musing on the day, I vaguely observed a young woman entering the carriage. She wore loose, hippish clothing and had a large bag at her side. What struck me as odd was that she was carrying something wedged between her left shoulder and her neck but not wanting to be caught staring I diverted my gaze and returned to my newspaper.
Suddenly she materialised beside me and asked if the inside seat was occupied. It was only then, as I faced her, that I realised she had no arms. So, I pushed in and she proceeded to sit down.
And what do you think were the first words I said to this woman with no arms – I said “Can I give you a hand?” No sooner were the words out of my mouth than I realised how insensitive they must have sounded and cringed. But rather than getting annoyed at my crassness she smiled at me and said: “there’s no need, I can manage”.
She then proceeded to deposit the bag of chips, that had been on her shoulder, on the table, raise her right leg as I would raise my arm, take hold the plastic fork between her toes and eat the chips. Meanwhile I sat beside her with my foot firmly wedged in my mouth – and it was a lot less appetising than the chips.
When she finished her meal we began talking and I discovered that she was a fascinating woman – an Art teacher from Tullamore who lived independently and really enjoyed life. I learned that she had no arms as a result of her pregnant mother taking thalidomide tablets for morning sickness before the discovery of their atrocious side effects on new-born children.
She was a delightful companion, one of those unique people that we meet occasionally in life, a warm, positive personality. Sadly, our conversation came to an end all too soon as she got off the train at Tullamore Station and I never saw or heard from her again.
What struck me afterwards was how careful we should be when we express ourselves. It’s so easy to say the wrong thing or to say something foolish or stupid like I did.
Somebody once said that good communication was about having the right words in the right order. Failure to do so can result in unfortunate misunderstandings in all sorts of places. Take for example some of the following conversations that took place in courtrooms.
A doctor was giving evidence on the stand and the prosecuting council, with the disdain that barristers often exhibit, asked him:
“Doctor did you say he was shot in the woods?”
“No”, the Doctor replied, “I said he was shot in the lumbar region”.
Then there was the junior barrister who asked the accused woman:
“Do you know how far pregnant you are now?”
Pausing to think she replied: “It will be 3 months on November 8th”.
“So, the date of conception was August 8th?”
“Yes, I suppose so”, she replied.
Then looking her in the eye the barrister asked
“And what were you and this man doing at the time?”
On another occasion a defence barrister was trying to undermine the evidence of the State Coroner when he asked him:
“Doctor, how many autopsies have you performed on dead people?”
After pausing for a second to consider he replied – “Well, as a matter of fact, all my autopsies were performed on dead people”.
Sometimes, of course, the problem arises from not listening to the question. Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson went camping. After a good meal and an excellent bottle of wine, they got into their tent, lay down and went to sleep. A couple of hours later Holmes woke up and nudged his faithful friend.
“Watson”, he said, “when you look skywards what do you see?”
“I see millions and millions of stars”, replied Watson.
“And what does that tell you?” inquired the master detective.
Watson thought for a moment.
“Well Holmes, astronomically it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time right now is approximately 2.30am and meteorologically I believe we will have a glorious day tomorrow to judge from the absence of cloud cover. What does it tell you, Holmes?”
“Watson, you are an imbecile! When I look skyward the most obvious thing, I see is that somebody has stolen our tent!”
So, whether you are travelling on a train or sleeping under the stars put your brain in gear before you engage it. Otherwise, you’ll end up with your foot in your mouth like I did or like the Geography student who was asked to define a “virgin forest”. He said that a virgin forest was a place where the hand of man had never set foot.