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A Letter to my O Level History Teacher by Sheena Wilkinson

Dear Mrs Jordan,

I know your name is Alison but I can’t address you as that. Even though I’m 46. Next week I’ve got a book out. It’s called Name Upon Name. It’s my sixth book, my fifth novel, and my first historical novel. I don’t know if that will surprise you; possibly not. You were my history teacher in Victoria College, Belfast, and the only time I ever got into trouble in history was when I made my account of plague victims just a little too graphic. That was back in Form 1L when I was twelve. Already I loved history, and writing stories.

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You weren’t a snuggly sort of teacher, which is possibly why I liked you so much. You were sarcastic and austere and very, very clever. We were all in awe of the fact that you’d actually written books yourself – and what’s more, they were about Belfast, our crazy, suffering, once-great city; and about women. I think you were the first person to show me that history didn’t have to be somewhere else, and it wasn’t all about men. And that there was more to Belfast than its troubled present – this was the 1980s.

You were disappointed when I dropped history after O Level, and so was I. But I was doing English and French, and I didn’t know which one I wanted to do at university. I thought it would make more sense to keep on German as a second modern language, as I knew I could always keep on reading history if I wanted to. It was a very rational decision – unusual for me. I promised you that I would always love history; I don’t know if you believed me, but I did keep that promise. One of the seventeen bookcases in my house is full of history books. I have a special interest in the early twentieth century, the period we covered for O Level history – Home Rule; Women’s Suffrage; World War One. You made it all lively and relevant, and awoke in me an interest that has never waned.

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One of the books in that bookcase is your biography of Margaret Byers, the woman who founded Victoria College in 1859. Nowadays I have lots of books by friends – that happens when you’re a writer – but back in 1990, when I was still an undergraduate, it felt so glamorous and exciting to know the author.

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Name Upon Name is set in 1916. It was commissioned as a contribution to the centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin, and at first I was nervous about that. I was a northerner; what could I say about this essentially Dublin event? But you’d taught me so well how history can’t be compartmentalised like that: that what happens in one place impacts on somewhere else. And you’d taught me a great deal about World War One, without which the Rising wouldn’t have happened when and how it did. You’d also taught me that Belfast mattered, and that it wasn’t somewhere to be ashamed of. And that girls mattered.

I think you’d like the novel. I think you’d be pleased that one of your pupils from the 1980s was inspired by you as she wrote it. I hope you’d be touched by the fact that I mention you in the acknowledgements. You died, too young, many years ago now, but you’ve passed on a love of history, and a way of looking at life, that has enriched my life and informed my work.

Thank you so much for that.

Sheena Wilkinson

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About sheenawriter68

I write books, drink tea, and sing.

9 comments on “A Letter to my O Level History Teacher by Sheena Wilkinson

  1. Marje @ Kyrosmagica
    August 19, 2015

    What a lovely post very heartfelt, it struck a bit of a cord in me too, as my English teacher was an amazing inspiration to me too. 🙂

  2. barbarahenderson
    August 19, 2015

    Lovely post. I had an inspirational English teacher – just one teacher who made a huge difference to my life!

    • sheenawriter68
      August 19, 2015

      Thanks Barbara! I was lucky enough to have several wonderful teachers, but this one has been in my mind so much recently because of the 1916 book. I was a teacher for 19 years myself and VERY RARELY got a thanks like this.

  3. Victoria Eveleigh
    August 19, 2015

    Yes, I loved this, Sheena Good teachers can transform life. My teacher of a lifetime was a geography teacher called Mr Bayliss. He’d been in the merchant navy and every lesson was like going on a voyage. He made us see how small the world is and that you can’t separate ‘physical’ geography from ‘human’ geography. Wonderful man. Can we by signed copies of Name Upon Name from you? If so, please may I have two?

  4. bridgeanneartandwriting
    August 19, 2015

    That’s a beautiful letter – and I really want to read your book!

  5. Victoria Eveleigh
    August 19, 2015

    Eeek! That should be ‘Can we buy signed copies. . . ‘!

  6. Emma Haughton
    August 20, 2015

    Great piece, Sheena – very moving

  7. Amy Butler Greenfield
    August 20, 2015

    That’s a beautiful tribute, Sheena. Blessings on all teachers who open our eyes to the world and yet make us proud of who we are and where we come from.

  8. Penny Dolan
    August 21, 2015

    What a well-seized opportunity to say the things one always wants to say – or to have said. Hope that somewhere she sees this. What an inspirational women she was – as were so many women teachers!

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