THE end of an one era and the start of another was marked at Dunclug College on Friday morning.
Long serving principal Ruth Wilson delivered her farewell prize day speech and voiced her support and encouragement for her successor, Mr. Oliver.
The defining moment in the Ballymena school’s history came at the end of what can only be termed as a year like no other.
And Mrs. Wilson reflected on the impact of Covid on the school community in a speech which was understandably tinged with emotion.
And she also noted the devastating impact which the tragic death of pupil Brooke Reid had made on everyone at the school.
She said: “The 2019/20 year began like any other September –with all the promise and excitement of the learning and enrichment programmes.
“In January came rumblings of a virus, a pandemic totally beyond the understanding of man, challenging the best scientists, the most competent medics, the greatest brains of the greatest professionals.
“Along with the forecasts and fears came the reality for schools and businesses of a dreaded lock-down. The Government instructed us to stay at home! A novelty at first, it crept over us like a blanket until the world’s activity was paused, and we all realised how much we loved being together – and yes, even going to school!
“A wonderful trip to the powdery peaks of Folgaria in Italy in the Spring – cancelled, an unforgettable trip to London’s Westend – cancelled, a mission to Delhi in India with ASHA – cancelled - the Spring Concert – cancelled, our spring and summer programme – cancelled, Sports’ Day cancelled, even the Principal’ retirement in August – cancelled… although for me, that was not all bad!”
And yet, even during the lockdown, staff and pupils responded to the challenge of e-learning - the challenge to provide work online for pupils and to teach on line.
“I sincerely thank all my colleagues on the teaching staff for their sterling efforts. Many pupils maximised their opportunity and many thrived.
“Some considered it a novelty at first, but as time has gone on, they too, have become involved and we have tried hard to make sure everyone has access to the right hardware, the right software, and the right training to make the most of them. I would encourage you going forward to make the most of your e-opportunities, your e-learning!
“I want to encourage Prize Winners today in all you have achieved, and wish you well for the future, & as always, I want to encourage those who worked faithfully all year even though you didn’t achieve a prize – especially if you had a challenge with your learning.”
Addressing pupils, Mrs. Wilson reflected on her own school experience at Londonderry High School.
“Derry, as we all called it, was at the heart of the Troubles – a topic you now cover in Year 10 History. A typical day for me involved at least two and often three searches by the soldiers on the country bus on the way in to town and then on the town bus on its journey up the Northland Road to my school.
“If you watched Derry Girls, (although they were from a different school in town), the accent and the conversation, although exaggerated for the programme, was fairly indicative of reality.
“You got used to organising your bag for a search…. To the commanding English voices, the brusque manner if they were bored or the over-friendliness if they liked the look of you. On top of that, you could even meet around any corner a gunman, his weapon hoisted against his shoulder, eyes darting suspiciously from his balaclava.
“Yes, this is a true story, and for me, it became a normal part of my day. Normal too, was the sound of gunfire in school, the distant rok-tok-tok of a rifle or the low rumble that signified an explosion you would later see on the 6 o’clock news.
“Often in the middle of an exam you would wonder if the bus would get through alright for the afternoon pick-up! ‘The troubles’, as they were called, went on for years, but it didn’t stop us learning and living our lives - we simply learned to get on with it.
“What do I remember about my school days? Certainly not troubles!. I remember my friends, the teachers I liked and the ones I didn’t, the books I loved, the races I ran, the lines I learned, the crack on the bus, the laughs we had… Just as you will, when you look back on your schooldays.
“I want to encourage everyone listening to make the most of time, and whatever your challenges, to get on with it! Make 2020 count!
“I want to congratulate and commend your new Principal to you, Mr Oliver – who has worked alongside me for the last fifteen and a half years and who is committed to the development of the new school and the development of every young person in it.
“As I end my professional journey, I know the school will move forward into a new era under his leadership. Alongside him he has a superb team of committed staff and a team of outstanding Governors.
“There is so much to look forward to in the future as school moves into a new era of growth and development and I will always be following all you do with interest.
“Trust your teachers, trust your new Principal. There will be clear advice coming soon. Remember what I said at the start of the year – it may seem like you are climbing a mountain at times, but take one step at a time every day, in your climb to success.
“I will certainly miss the buzz of school life, the friendship of my colleagues, the professionalism of the staff and most of all – I will miss you all, the pupils, the heart of the school and the reason I wanted to teach. If you have lost your way, I want to encourage you – the help is here, make the most of it!”
The bonds that I have formed here, the memories, the high points, the challenges, will always remain with me, always a part of me, and I will always remain interested in the progress of the school and in meeting you all outside school as you develop your own pathways for life. Your letters and your messages mean a great deal to me – so keep them coming!
On a sadder note, Mrs. Wilson turned to more recent events.
“In October, the unthinkable happened when we lost a child. Brooke Reid was an exemplary pupil and whether you knew her well; or whether you didn’t, you couldn’t fail to be touched by her story – and I was proud of the way the young people of this college remembered their friend, showed respect to her family and celebrated her life.
“As a school we do not forget the grief felt by her family this Christmas.”