Learning goes on amid Ulster's troubles
Schools should concentrate on education, not on "sociological and political aims," according to one Northern Ireland headmaster, John Frost. But after 37 years of teaching in this troubled British province, Dr. Frost finds that it is virtually imposible to keep other issues out of the schoolroom.
He explains that the teacher is constantly having to deal with the questions of social and political reform raised by Ulster's past 10 years of terrorist violence -- because both teachers and students live in a society where reform is seen as a priority.
There is particular attention focused on Dr. Frost's school because segregated (protestant/Roman Catholic) education has been seen as one factor in perpetuating sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland.
Unlike most schools in Ulster, Sullivan upper School on the outskirts of Belfast began as an interdenominational school and has remained mixed not just in theory but in practice throughout the "troubles."
As Sullivan Upper' headmaster for the past 25 years, Dr. Frost explains that he has had lots of time "to apply, in the field of education, the theological concept that all children are equally precious because they are all the sons of God."
It is on that basis that his school educates Catholics alongside Protestants and ghetto youngsters alongside the affluent. Sullivan Upper is proud of drawing its students from throughout the community, from families with annual incomes ranging from $:3,000 ($7,000) to $:30,000 ($70,000).
Sectarian violence, Dr. Frost agreed, has increased the challenges for his school.
One immediately visible sign of the challenges is the hundred-year-old grammar school's neighbor -- Palace Barracks, a permanent and well-fortified base for British troops in Ulster. Over recent years Palace Barracks has been singled out as a place where controversial and subsequently abandoned "degrading" interrogation of terrorist suspects took place.
Today well-armed, flak-jacketed soldiers from Palace Barracks patrol the roads around Sullivan Upper.
Yards away from the patrolling troops, Sullivan Upper's modern classrooms house neat rows of quiet, well-behaved boys and girls in their drab, boxy school uniforms. Among these typical Ulster students, ages five to 19, only the oldest remember the quiet times before civil-rights protests in 1968 turned swiftly into bitter sectarian violence with 13,000 British troops caught in the middle.
Each of the 22 students in Thomas Hooks's history class has his or her own story about the violence -- the uncle blown up, a neighbor's son who is a known member of the illegal Ulster Volunteer Force, a friend's father singled out and killed.
These cheerful youngsters know the price they can pay themselves."The Catholics are told just to mix with Catholics," one 16-year old boy explained as the mixed group of Protestant and Catholic students nodded agreement. "A young person can get knee-capped if he has Protestant friends," he added, referring to the terrorist punishment used by both sides: a bullet through the knee joint.
Headmaster John Frost explained that there are good reasons why his school has remained a relatively calm center of learning.
With his black academic gown amplifying his dramatic gestures as he leafed through school photographs dating back to 1877, Dr. Frost said, "Deep roots enable a degree of normality amid the stroms and winds and adversities that we've experienced here."
He explained that academic gowns for al masters and school uniforms which haven't changed in the past 100 years are part of an essential respect for the school's traditional type of education.
Another part is the fact that the school was started thanks to Dr. Robert Sullivan, a local boy who went on to become a prominent educator. The scholl was founded with money he earned by writing school textbooks used throughout the English-speaking world in the mid-19th century.
Married to a Roman Catholic himself, Dr. Sullivan, who otherwise would probably have become a Protestant minister, ensured that his school would be interdenominational. the school today remains committed to having a mixed student body -- and to having all faiths represented on its board of management.
Dr. Frost stated flatly that "It would be absurd to pretend that the present troubles have had no impact on this school." One sign of that impact is that students here have tended in recent years to opt for university in Britain or the Irish Republic rather than stay in Northern Ireland.
But, said the headmaster, his students "very often discover the other communities are no more civilized than the one they have moved away from. The Bombings and shootings here are gross manifestations of what they find in other forms in other societies, whether it is the black/white problems in America, the clash ebtween trade unions and capitalism in Britain, or other problems in Belgium, Rhodesia, or South Africa."
Dr. Frost finds that the "deep roots" given by a sound education prepare his students to deal with such challenges.
One reason Sullivan Upper students, he explained, are equipped to deal with difficult situations is because throughout the violence they have worked well together in an environment which freely mixes Protestants and Catholics. This takes place both within school hours and afterward in a wide variety of sports, social,and cultural activities which Dr. Frost considers a key part of any education.
Thomas Hooks's Irish history class made it clear that this mixing includes open discussion of current issues. In his classroom, Mr. Hooks explained that "I try to get across the idea that different people have different opinions, such as whether we should be linked with Britain or with the Irish Republic, but that the place to exprss these opinions is in the ballot box."
His students obviously feel free to express their opinions in the classroom as well: One girl told Mr. Hooks that his Irish history course "really is the history of Britain, it is all from a British point of view."
That sort of comment coming out in classroom discussion is just what Sullivan Upper wants to produce -- just what Dr. Frost believes can come out when there are deep roots of mutual understanding and respect -- and just what could be a model for society as a whole, bringing a shift away from shooting and bombing toward verbal confrontation instead.