I’ve written extensively in the past couple of days about the women who have inspired me – and with Mother’s Day on the horizon, I’m not quite done yet – but following some sad news earlier today, I’d like to turn my attention to one of the men who shaped my life and gave me and countless other young women the encouragement and confidence that they needed.
A month ago I shared my experiences about coming out at an all-girls Catholic school, and I emphasised the instrumental role that teachers can play in tackling homophobia in an educational environment. Although there were numerous incidents where the teaching staff were either not as supportive as they could have been, or were downright offensive, there were a couple who stood out as champions of tolerance – and crucially, they were the ones who most influenced me, and who have stayed in contact over the last decade.
Gerard Donovan was my Head of Sixth Form and Classical Civilisation teacher – in fact, he gave up some of his rare free periods to include Class Civ in the curriculum, even though by the time A Levels rolled around there were only two of us in the class. He also tutored me in Greek during lunch periods, and it was partly through his passion for the subject that I went on to study it as an undergraduate at Edinburgh. He encouraged me to apply to Oxford, and even though she and I weren’t a good fit, his belief that I was capable of it has stayed with me ever since.
Yesterday I learnt that he had died, suddenly although following a period of illness. The outpouring of grief on Facebook from his pupils past & present has been overwhelming – it’s clear that he shaped a lot of our lives. We stayed in sporadic contact over the years, and he always let me know how proud he was of my success, even though said success often went against the teachings of the Church that was such a big part of his life.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the person I was at 18, and what she’d think of the woman I’ve become. Overall, I think she’d be pretty darn impressed – I have a successful career as a journalist, I’m a published author and this weekend I got to share the stage with women who inspired her. I owe such a lot of that to the people who supported me then – in particular my parents, Mr Donovan, and the poet Ange Topping, who was my A Level English teacher. Both my mother and Mr Donovan are no longer with us, but I think – I hope – they know how their support and belief in me has helped me over the years.
Mr Donovan was a very kind, gentle man who was soft-spoken and maybe a little shy, but beneath that had a wicked sense of humour. Admittedly this once manifested itself in quizzing me in detail on the Peloponnesian War in front of the Ofsted inspectors – despite said war not being on the curriculum. I had been talking about bacchanals earlier though, so possibly he felt I deserved it. And anyway, one thing I learnt from Mr D is that ancient military history is cool. Everyone seems to be reminiscing about his teaching French with a Scouse accent – I missed out on that particular pleasure, but I imagine he was as endearing in French as he was in Greek. He was incredibly supportive when my mother was seriously ill during my A Levels, and I’ve heard similar anecdotes from countless people in the last 24 hours. He was everything a teacher ought to be, and will be very sadly missed.