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Academic who grew up in ‘deep poverty’ reveals kindness of her first teacher


A teacher who was raised by heroin-addicted parents and lived in deep poverty with five siblings has revealed how a schoolteacher taught her how to clean herself after arriving at school unwashed each day.

In her critically acclaimed new memoir Poor, Dr Katriona O’Sullivan, a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Dublin’s Maynooth University, describes how her early childhood in the 1980s, growing up in the Hillfields area of ​​Coventry, had problems with her Irish parents both battle drug addiction.

In her own teens, she lost to petty crime; she was arrested for stealing, fighting and taking drugs before becoming pregnant at just 15 years old. She was left homeless before finally getting her life back on track and graduating from Trinity College, Dublin – with her parents Tony and Tilly by her side.

Speaking about the complexities of childhood addiction and poverty, she told BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour this week how a kind primary school teacher noticed when she was just five that she was being neglected at home and taught her how to wash herself.

Dr. Katriona O’Sullivan, who teaches at Maynooth University in Dublin, grew up with drug-addicted parents in the West Midlands. Her new memoir Poor is critically acclaimed for recounting the complexities of growing up in poverty

Describing how her chaotic childhood affected her early years in school, she said, “We weren’t taught how to wash, we didn’t have toothbrushes or towels in the house. We often had no sheets on the bed’.

The mother of three explained that she quickly became the kid her peers didn’t want to sit next to. She said she often had nits and was the “smelly kid” they would call “terrible names.”

She explained to BBC presenter Nuala Mcgovern how she would roll out of bed and run to school without washing or changing her underwear.

Revealing the friendly approach of her nursery and reception teacher, Miss Arkinson, she said she “never, ever disgraced me,” telling the program that instead she gave her a pack of clean underwear and taught her how to had to wash.

Earlier this week, Dr O'Sullivan, mother of three, appeared on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour to discuss how a reception teacher's kindness made her 'transformative'

She said the teacher, Miss Arkinson, would quietly take her to school in a laundry bag so she could wash herself

Earlier this week, Dr O’Sullivan, mother of three, appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour to discuss how a reception teacher’s kindness made her ‘transformative’

The academic depicted as a teenager;  she was arrested for stealing and using drugs - and got pregnant when she was 15 - before turning her life around with education

The academic depicted as a teenager; she was arrested for stealing and using drugs – and got pregnant when she was 15 – before turning her life around with education

Dr. O’Sullivan explains, “This particular day I remember her taking me to the bathroom, her and another assistant. I was convinced that something was wrong because I was always in trouble.’

She continues, “This beautiful teacher, I remember crouching down, looking me in the eye and saying, ‘It’s okay’ and pulling out a pack of underwear… and teaching me how to wash myself.”

The academic said her teacher would then put a fresh washcloth and towel behind her desk and the young girl would come in before her classmates each morning and wash in the school’s toilets.

Dr.  Katriona O'Sullivan's memoir Wicked

Dr. Katriona O’Sullivan’s memoir Wicked

She told the show, “I was really embarrassed at the time because I knew they knew I was this smelly girl — because I was well aware of that — but I also felt so seen and cared for.”

Later, another teacher, Mr. Pickering, encouraged her to take her GCSEs and discover her academic talent.

Dr. O’Sullivan told BBC presenter Nuala that the poorest in society are often constrained by people’s low expectations of what they can achieve, saying there is a “general judgment” about people living in poverty.

In her memoir, the scientist also describes how a student at the university where she now teaches immediately recognized her as her former dinner lady.

In the book, she describes the student as a ‘poshie’ and reveals how she told her, ‘Oh my God, wait! It’s you, isn’t it? You were my table lady!… But what are you doing here?’

To which she replied, ‘Ah, come on. Didn’t you know table ladies have brains?’

She said BBC West Midlands: ‘I think that people in privileged positions should understand, for example, how far-reaching poverty is. And how it can affect your whole life.’

Poor from Dr. Katriona O’Sullivan, published by Penguin Ireland, is out now

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