Judith Pieris: An appreciation

Education: Secondary / Wed 12th Jul 2017 at 01:57pm

Judith PierisBy Michael Casey

THE FORMER head of English at St Marks school in Harlow has recently passed away after a short illness.

I wanted to pay my own tribute to a remarkable woman who was a brilliant practitioner of the art of teaching. I would not be sitting here as a journalist if it was not for Mrs Pieris.

I was first a student of Mrs Pieris when I entered the A Level English class in 1978. Let’s be honest, I was completely overawed by the academic ability of every other student as well as the challenges of the course.

And that is before I even opened a book. When the first two books are Paradise Lost by John Milton and Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer, you suddenly realised that this was going to be tough, very tough. Or as they say: “Long is the way and hard that leads up to light”

But throughout the two years, Mrs Pieris was there for me. Through Othello, Murder in the Cathedral, Juno and The Paycock and Troilus and Cressida she tried to make me an A Level student.

You were in awe with her intellect. Her capacity to get the message across. Her demand for analysis.. You have done, the who and the where in O Level. Now is the time for why. This was the first venture into an adult world of education. We were now looking at the psyche of Iago, the anti-hero of Satan; the role of the matriarch in Irish society; the misogyny of Shakespeare. At times you just wanted to go back to Stig of the Dump!

But you know what happened? I failed A Level English. I deserved to. I found the leap too hard. But Mrs Pieris never gave up on me. She sat me down and gave me a re-sit plan. She knew I had a conditional offer for Stirling University and she knew how much getting to university was going to be for people like me, the sons of post-war Irish immigrants. At that time only 6% of the population went to university and so you can imagine what the percentage was for Harlow.

Between September 1980 and January 1981, she took me back through the books, plays and poems. She marked and re-marked my work. Yep, they were D’s and C’s with a hint of B but Mrs Pieris never gave up on a student who by this time must have been more than a passing similarity to Lennie from Of Mice and Men.

In March 1981, I got an A at A Level English. Don’t ask me how. Oh yes, it was primarily Judith Pieris. I did so well that Mrs Pieris hugged me and if you knew Judith Pieris you know they are a rare thing of beauty indeed.

My whole world had opened up. I went to university. I plodded along there as well, but I got my honours degree.

And so many years later the kid is a 55-year-old journalist, who, by this own admission, still plods along, still has to ask loads of questions to understand but still keeps on the coat tail of every story. Much of that stems from the education I received from Judith Pieris.

Thanks Mrs Pieris. I fear this tribute may be a C Plus and from your lofty perch, the red pen would scrawl all over this piece but I just wanted to tell you that I shall never forget what you did for me.

Michael Casey

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