We’ve just got a staff WhatsApp message. One of our students has died. He died a few weeks ago and the funeral is over. This is one of the hardest parts of being a tutor in an adult learning centre – at times our students die. The two things aren’t connected. We don’t have some kind of terrible medical effect on people. Our premises are beautiful, our tea and scones top class, and we strive to keep our atmosphere joyful and free from stress.
Many of our students are older adults, who have the opportunity to come back to education now that they have retired or have left the workforce due to injury or illness, or simply have more time outside their working hours because their families are reared.
Joe was one of the latter, coming in to class between split shifts as a Dublin Bus driver. He loved learning, all of it, from improving spelling and writing, to dealing with challenging ideas. We went on many trips as part of different groups, and he took every opportunity to follow up, joining libraries, doing his own research. He revelled in group discussions and would laugh uproariously, dissipating tension when things got too heated. After a robust exchange of views with trusted colleagues he would head off out the door delighted, saying ‘That was great, wasn’t it?!’
This time last year, we sat with tears streaming down our faces while he read a deeply personal story, honest and beautiful with a lovely turn of phrase. I am always in awe of students for their bravery and honoured by the trust they put in us by coming in and saying ‘I want to learn, please help me’. We do our best to fill the gaps and provide stimulating opportunities but when someone takes off, finds their voice and sings, it is always their own commitment to learning and changing that shines through, not any particular learning strategy or theory.
It is a privilege to be part of a learning community with students like Joe.
Often the apparatus of the State doesn’t value adult basic education, if it doesn’t lead to ‘progression’, employment or meet some kind of economic value. And yes, we go to a lot of funerals. It is something I find increasingly difficult, maybe due to the cumulative effect over the years. But I would have gone to Joe’s gladly. RIP.
By Lisa Kilbride, a tutor in DALC.