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Make a joyful sound

On Wednesday 30 May 2018 Declan O’Keeffe will teach his last class in Clongowes Wood College having taught his first in September 1981. On Wednesday 23 May Declan led Morning Prayer and reflected on the deceptive passage of time for both pupil and teacher alike…

‘Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around
Go on and make a joyful sound’

— Jackson Browne, ‘For A Dancer’, 1974

Six years ago I returned to Clongowes following a one-year career break, which gradually became two, three and finally four years – and how those years flew. I returned to a new job, hit the ground sprinting and haven’t really let up since with deadline pursuing deadline at dizzying pace. It was ever thus. Our lives rip by and – if we’re not careful – we can miss a lot of what’s important.

Six years ago the gentlemen to my left, the Rhetoric class of 2018 entered Elements and I had the honour of teaching some of them Junior Cert History. I can still remember how nervous we all were – for we were all newbies one way or another. We gradually got to know one another and rubbed along just fine until they passed from my care into Transition Year and then the senior cycle, which they are completing this week. And look at them now – all grown up. I can’t say the same for myself – teachers have to remain a little childlike if they are to do their work properly.

I’ll bet it hasn’t seemed like six years to them. When they arrived in their first year it would have seemed like forever to when they would be undertaking their last lap, and yet – here they are – classes almost finished – coming off the final bend, with the finishing straight in sight and that final journey down the avenue next Sunday.

Last year, as the September break approached one of the Rhetoric men told me that it was the first in a series of ‘lasts’ for them – their ‘last’ September Break. He told me that, perhaps for the first time in their six years, they were keenly aware of the passing of the academic year: their last Hallowe’en Break, Christmas Concert, Cup Campaign, Union Day and then – finally – their last time to travel down the main avenue and through the gates, which they had entered as first years only a short time before.

I won’t be far behind them. It has been an open secret this term that I will be stepping away from the classroom this year to devote myself to my other job as Head of Communications, and – while this will still have me working in Clongowes – I will no longer be meeting you as pupils and someone else will be teaching you History in my stead. While the 37 years that have passed since I first arrived here in 1981 have taken a little longer to pass than the last six, they have still moved very quickly.

American songwriter Jackson Browne wrote his song, ‘For A Dancer’ to mourn the death of a friend. It is mournful, joyful and philosophical, especially when he writes:

‘Keep a fire for the human race
Let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down.
Perhaps a better world is drawing near,
And just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found.
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around
Go on and make a joyful sound’

Time is the great gift. None of us knows for sure how big our portion is, which makes it all the more important to use it while it is still ours. The ability to be aware of the passing moments as they pass, as opposed to bemoaning their passing in hindsight is rare.

If your time in Clongowes is to be worth anything (and it is worth much) it should be reflected in your lives here and hereafter. There is a poster here in the concourse that urges you to ‘go forth and set the world on fire’, which is a grand ambition – and not one that we may all realise. Personally I have always settled for just being extraordinary – and I commend it to you as well. Each of you – each of us – is already extraordinary.

During our time here we are continually given opportunities to make our mark. They are not always the obvious openings such as a starring role in a play, on a cup team or in debate. But they are there. Don’t be afraid of them. Don’t be afraid to make your mark. Step up to the mark. Give it socks.

I used to be too shy to do many things for fear that people would look at me, but my mother always told me that when they were finished looking at me they would find something else to look at. She was right; people will always look at you. The thing is to give them something worth seeing.

So, don’t let the uncertainty turn you around.

Go on and make a joyful sound.