Schools are more than a place to learn

The photo of Damian McGuire tucking into dinner on his first day at school has been a part of his life ever since it was taken.

Despite causing his mother, Helen, huge embarrassment – she was unaware her son did not know how to use his knife and fork properly – it sat proudly on their staircase wall for years.

And when Helen worried about what she would be able to leave her son after she was gone, he made only one request.

“I didn’t care that she didn’t have anything to leave me because all I wanted was that photo and one Christmas it was my present,” he said.

Today, the image sits on his wall at home as a reminder of the importance of education and the vital role schools play in so many lives.

For school was more than just a place to learn – it was an escape and somewhere Damian felt secure.

“School was fun, it was the place where I had friends and was a safe haven,” he said.

“The same can be said for all our schools across TCAT. They are essential for the wellbeing of children and young people and helping them to realise their potential.”

That’s not to say Damian’s home wasn’t a loving place. Helen and husband John raised their three children whilst also running an adjoining shop.

It was open all hours, well until 9pm most days, so was extremely time-consuming.

That meant the approach to meals was minimum fuss, maximum efficiency.

Only when a priest from Damian’s school shared the photo did Helen realise the cost of their military precision.

“I explained I didn’t know how to use cutlery correctly because my mother always used to give me my food chopped up,” said Damian.

It was the McGuires’ approach to business, however, that led to major disruption in the family’s lives.

Anyone was welcome in their Derry shop on the border with the Republic of Ireland, but that attitude drew the IRA’s attention.

On the first occasion Damian was told by his parents to take shelter at a friend’s house while his siblings ran up and down the street warning neighbours that a bomb had been thrown into the shop.

When he next saw home it was destroyed and the McGuires made headlines across the world as the first Catholic family left homeless by the IRA.

They rebuilt their lives, their home and business only for it all to be destroyed a further six times.

During another attack Helen was inside the shop, but rescued one of the terrorists who had become trapped by the fire.

She put out the flames on the teenager and when he later appeared in court Helen asked the judge to show leniency because the boy was being used by others who should have been the ones in the dock.

Despite all the trauma, the family made sure that Damian still attended school.

In fact he had a 100% attendance in 12 of his 14 school years, captained several teams, was elected to the school council by his peers and passed the 11+.

As well as a strong work ethic, Helen and John always impressed upon their children the importance of education despite him leaving school at 12 and her not having any qualifications.

“My mother would say ‘I can’t see the coffin in the hall so get yourself to school’,” said Damian.

In truth, it seems Damian did not need much encouragement.

At primary he discovered he loved performing arts thanks to some enthusiastic teachers and it also bolstered his confidence.

By the time he reached St Columb’s College – which counts Nobel prize winners John Hulme and Seamus Heaney as former pupils – his mind was set on not becoming one of the 25% of the population who was unemployed.

Once again, school provided comfort as his father had sadly died just before Damian moved up.

It was once again a safe place despite the fact that even the unaccompanied walk to school swimming lessons had him ducking into alleyways to avoid petrol bombs and rubber bullets in the volatile area of the Bogside.

“School was a place that took my anger away and was somewhere to explore ideas,” he said.

“They helped us all, including the ones who were not going to university.”

Damian did, in fact, go to university as did his brother and sister.

He went on to marry a teacher and is now TCAT’s Director of Finance.

His life experiences, he believes, drew him back to education and give him an interesting perspective of all that is achieved within the Trust.

“We all make a difference every day to the people we come into contact with whether that be the pupils, their parents or our colleagues,” said Damian.

“Anything we can do to make their day a little better is worthwhile and often you can be helping someone when you don’t even realise it.”