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Debate: The last word

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By John CoeGeneral Secretary of the National Association for Primary Education

John Coe tells a story from the past. There is a moral – to be creative you first have to be free

John Coe

Pens and notebooks at the ready, the 99 nuns regarded me expectantly – they were ready for a lecture. I had come to a college near Dublin to teach a week-long course on creativity and the nuns were teachers from the west of Ireland. But, I surprised them all. ‘No lecture,’ I said. ‘I’m just going to brief you about tomorrow. I want you to go into Dublin and take a camera or a notebook with you. It’s a marvellous city, enjoy it and make a record of your day. There’s nothing in particular you have to do, but later on in the college we’ll use your notes and make a personal, perhaps even creative, response to your experience.’ There was, what I can only describe, as an awed hush followed by excited chatter.

By 8.30am the next morning, the college was deserted. ‘I’m impressed with their enthusiasm,’ I said to the principal. She regarded me with an amused eye. ‘I fear,’ she replied, ‘You don’t know what you’ve done. You see, most of the nuns have never been to Dublin in their lives before. They come from closed orders.’ (I should explain that I write of a time before the reforms of Pope John Paul).

‘For (the nuns) education had always been instruction and materials meant pen and paper’

Education = instruction

The last two nuns came back at 11pm and wouldn’t say what they had been doing. Another pair were triumphant – they had bought swimming things and gone for their first ever swim. It had been a happy day, but I was soon faced by disaster. The materials and tools I had gathered were there, pristine and inviting, but the nuns found it impossible to get going. For them, education had always been instruction and materials meant pen and paper. Anything creative was seen as learning to copy adult art. Making a personal statement was foreign to them. Their lives of discipline and obedience had left them without personal resource. In despair, I sent them into the college grounds. It was no good. They took my carefully prepared modelling clay and used twigs to make a grotto with a cross at its centre. The nuns, kindly as ever, were distressed to see my frustration – they wanted to do what I sought, but it was beyond them.

At long last…

Late on the third day, to my great relief, a nun showed me some poetry she had written about feeling overwhelmed in the busy Dublin streets. She allowed me, with promise of anonymity, to read it to the others. As last, we’d had a breakthrough. From then on, a stream of self expression began to flow; drawing, painting, modelling, printing and more writing followed. I can only hope that some of this, or at least the underlying idea, was taken back to their schools.

As we said goodbye, a nun whispered to me, ‘I’ll tell you what I did when you sent us into Dublin – I went to see my mother.’ It was a while before I realised the full weight of this. Only because her order had said that she must follow the instructions of the course leader, was she able to go to the home she had left 40 years before when she entered the nunnery. It may not have been the best course I have ever taught, but at least I brought a mother and child together.

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