“Sir do you remember me?”

POST BY PO'Reilly

Boy flicks through text book

Pope Paul VI was once approached by an enthusiastic spirit-filled young man who told him that he wanted to be a martyr.
“No,” said the Holy Father after due consideration, “be a teacher. That is much, much harder.”

Well, my father was a schoolteacher. He was never really happy with that. He had hoped for more in life – a sparkling career in what he thought was more a glamorous profession and certainly a better paid one. But, for many reasons, he did not succeed in his chosen career and so he settled down reluctantly to be a school-teacher.

He was not a naturally gifted teacher. He was a shy man and, although he cared deeply about his pupils, he found it very difficult to communicate to them his love of knowledge and his love of God. And he also found it impossible to keep order in class. But one of the compensations of his job was that, every few days or so, some unknown man would run up to him in the street, shake him warmly by the hand and cry excitedly, “Sir, sir, do you remember me?!”

It was always some one of his pupils – often from 10 or 20 years before – who remembered him with affection. Sadly, the truthful answer to the question was always “No”. The intervening years would have made little change to my father’s appearance, except perhaps making him a little rounder, greyer and lighter on top. But they would have changed the boy into a man – completely unrecognizable from how he had been as a school-boy. But it always gave my father some consolation that, no matter what difficulties he might have had at school with a particular boy, when grown to man’s estate, the boy inside the man remembered him with affection.

But one day, it was different. A man came up to him in the street, very slowly and hesitantly. Tentatively he offered his hand to shake, as if expecting the answer ‘No’. And he asked very quietly, “Sir do you remember me?”

For the first and only time, my father did: “Kieron,” he said immediately. “Kieron Fallon.”

Now, even I knew the name Kieron Fallon – well, let me be honest, the name has been changed to protect the guilty.  He had been the worst boy the school had ever known. After a career of minor crime he had been expelled. He had then got involved with the family business which was smuggling illegal alcohol - poteen - up and down the Irish coast. From there he had graduated to smuggling drugs. And from there he had progressed to involvement with a terrorist organisation that was at that time planting bombs in England. And it was while he was in England that he was caught by the police and imprisoned on a relatively minor drugs charge. The police didn’t know about his more serious crimes.

And, while prison may or may not make a difference to other people, it gave Kieron a chance to reflect on the direction of his life. And what he saw ahead of him was more of the same – a life of getting steadily deeper and deeper into trouble. Plan A didn’t seem to be working and he didn’t have a Plan B.

And for some reason – just at that moment – he remembered my father reading this passage of Scripture in class. He said that the only reason that he remembered it was that my father had read it very badly, but that is why it had stuck in his memory. But he also remembered what my father had said about it – you are never so far in that, with the love of God, you cannot get back out. And he thought about that for the several weeks that Her Majesty’s government had given him leisure. And he came out a genuinely changed man. And he told my father that his reading that Scripture passage badly in class had saved his life.

That evening, after dinner, my father turned to my mother and said, “You know, for once in my life, I’m glad I became a teacher.”

I think that is why Jesus says that “There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine virtuous men who have no need of repentance.”

Let us profess our Faith in God who rejoices over our repentances.

Paul O'Reilly SJ