June 27, 2013
June 27, 2013
The original plan for this column was to single out an individual each month for a hearty pat on the back. That would have been nice and simple. In this story, however, we see that what we call ‘good’ is part of a network of good – as is what we call ‘evil’. Or as John Donne more eloquently put it:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
This is a story about football, and children, and Thailand, and Scotland, and of course, English language teaching - so let’s kick off with Berni Lennon. He’s a half British, half Thai boy who loves to play football with his brother Steven Noi. Like his father and mother, Paul and Rungthiwa, he supports Celtic Football Club.
Despite his parents’ best efforts, when it came to the time for Berni to go to school, the Lennon’s couldn’t find anywhere that would accept him. Berni was refused a place in a number of schools. It was felt that his presence would be too challenging for the teachers and other children. The stakes were high because if he wasn’t offered a place somewhere locally, the only option was for him either to be educated at home or at a residential school 50 miles away.
Why was he excluded? Well, Berni has Down’s syndrome and, in Thailand as in most parts of the world, the system is not prepared to cope with the challenges of teaching children with Down’s syndrome in regular schools. This is a shame because with dedicated resources it is usually of great benefit for Down’s syndrome children to be educated inclusively. It’s also of huge benefit to non-Down’s syndrome children and the community as a whole. Never has this been truer than in the case of Berni Lennon.
Enter into our story a wealthy, retired Thai couple, Mr Praman and Mrs Yuvaret Sarakoses. Mr Sarakoses was Police Superintendent of the province of Chanthaburi region and Mrs Sarakoses is a former “Business Woman of the Year”. Motivated by their Buddhist beliefs, they have devoted themselves to charity work. Their Good Child Foundation and other projects are changing the lives of thousands of poor children in Chanthaburi, making up the gaps in a system under pressure - gaps that too many children fall through into lives of crime and deprivation. One of their good works is their support for the Triamsuksanayaiam School where 70 per cent of the children’s parents are rubber plantation workers and the remainder are farm labourers. It was to this school that Paul and Rungthiwa went to ask for a place for Berni when they had run out of places to turn to.
With a simple act of compassion, the Sarakoses reached out to Berni and offered him a place for the school year that was about to start. By way of expressing their gratitude and to support Berni and the other students and teachers, Paul and Rungthiwa became involved in teaching English at the school. They had little experience and there was no budget for published materials, so they used the best methodology out there and based their teaching on something that they knew and were themselves passionate about - the songs sung on the terraces of Celtic Football Club. From a language teaching point of view point of view they had stumbled on the best way to teach the largest number of students in crowded classes with limited resources. The halls of the school echoed to the sounds of “The Fields of Athenry”, “The Town I loved so Well”, “Molly Malone” and “Dirty Old Town”. These are the Irish songs that the Celtic fans sing - songs firmly rooted in the Celtic history of hardship, passion and pride.
From then on, the ‘Thai Tims’ as they became known really started to rock. They built up their repertoire and confidence and via the miracle of You Tube, their performances came to the attention of Celtic supporters in Scotland who, of course, thought that this was the most marvellous thing they had ever seen. Hundreds of weans singing their songs in Thailand! Donations to the Foundation started coming in. This facilitated the inclusion of more Down’s syndrome children at the school. Then things took a giant leap. The Good Child Foundation was adopted as one of the official charities of Celtic Football Club and their videos were played on the giant screen at Celtic Park. Goodness knows what Brother Walfrid would have made of it all!
Back in Scotland, 18 year old Reamonn Gormley had just graduated from secondary school. Sporty, popular, good-looking, warm-hearted and generous, he was starting out on his adult life with everything going for him. A Celtic supporter he had heard of the Thai Tims and having some free time before going to university he offered his services as a volunteer. Paul and Rungthiwa took him up on his offer and, along with an Irish student, he travelled to Thailand and started to teach at the school. In the mornings, he taught English and sang with the children. In the afternoons, he played baseball and coached the football team. He himself had played for the Celtic youth team so was something of an asset in matches against local schools. Reamonn stayed with the Lennon’s as their guest and became like a son to them and like a big brother and best friend to Berni and his younger brother, Steven Noi. In the evenings he went to the river and fished with the old men. Watching a video of Reamonn with the students, relaxed and happy, speaking a few words of Thai as he promises them he will be come back next year, is deeply moving.
A few months after returning to Scotland, Reamonn was murdered.
The details of his stabbing are so sickening that they hardly bear telling. He was walking back home with a friend, and much has been made of the fact that he was going home after watching a football match. In a way, that ties his death into our story, but the simple fact is that he was just a young man walking down the street with a friend of an evening. His attack was not sectarian or football related but a botched robbery. Reamonn’s death caused collective outrage throughout the community, and that included the Celtic family who, learning of his work in Thailand, rallied even greater support for the Good Child Foundation as well as anti-knife crime charities working to prevent this sort of tragedy.
As an optimist, I like to think that what we call ‘good’ will have the upper hand and this story has something of an inspiring ending. In 2012, through a huge effort on the part of Paul and Rungthiwa Lennon and the support of the Celtic and Chanthaburi communities, 42 children travelled to Glasgow and sang for the fans at half time in Celtic Park - or Paradise as it is known. They spent three weeks in Scotland and met everybody in town including Reamonn’s parents, the Celtic players and manager, the Lord Provost and the Archbishop of Glasgow. Everywhere they went they received a rapturous welcome. They even crossed the Irish Sea and visited Belfast where they played a concert and met the Lord Mayor. Meeting them at the Titanic Museum and singing together was something I will never forget.
There seems to be no end to this flow of healing, positive energy. Reamonn’s parents have visited the school in Thailand as have a stream of supporters. They have received so many offers from volunteers that they can now send people to other schools and orphanages. This month, the final touches have been put on the Reamonn Gormley Hall, tiled in the striking green and white hoops of Celtic Football Club. It all goes very well with the tropical surroundings and although Reamonn will never get to sing there, thousands of voices will be keeping his memory alive. What more could he, the Lennon’s and Sarakoses, Brother Walfrid and thousands of Celtic supporters have hoped for? The rest of us educators should keep our eyes on the ball. There are lessons here for us all. In the words of John Donne:
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.