This afternoon, my high school English teacher, Shirley McCoombe, passed away after a battle with cancer.
It has been many years since I saw her, and yet her passing leaves me at a loss. She was one of the great influences on my life, and I have no doubt that without the great Mrs Mac in my teenage years, there would be no Blue Dragon today.
I was born and grew up in Sydney Australia, but just before my 12th birthday my whole family left the city to start a new life in a fairly remote part of the country. We bought a block of land 30km from the town of Bundarra, population 400, and started a farm from nothing.
Life was difficult. At first we had no house, or electricity, or running water; we had to build everything ourselves, and as we did so we lived in caravans. We never went hungry, but we were poor and had no luxuries in life other than the joy of being in the countryside, which wasn’t always a joy.
School was the only place I ever went other than a weekly shopping trip to a larger town during school holidays. It was a small school – there were just 13 of us in my grade – and coming from the city, where life had been very different, I found it hard to ever fit in.
Mrs Mac and her English classes were always the highlight of the day. I found escape in the literature we read and became an avid story writer, able to create worlds from my imagination. In English class, I felt safe; I could express myself and push my limits, knowing that Mrs Mac would never condemn or be disappointed.
I was not an easy kid to teach, and most of my teachers had a justifiably low opinion of me. But Mrs Mac found the good in in me and knew how to drew it out; she saw me not just for what I was, but for who I could be.
With Mrs Mac, I could try new things and know that someone had my back. We even started a school newspaper, the Bundarra Bugle, and Mrs Mac would spend hours at night typing up our stories and printing them out – this was in the 1980s, when IT was still pretty basic.
Mrs Mac is the sole reason I became an English teacher myself. I wanted to be for others what Mrs Mac had been for me. Working in a large high school in Sydney for just 4 years, I never really achieved that; but in moving to Vietnam and starting Blue Dragon, I finally realised my dream.
Now I work with street kids and young people who have been trafficked and enslaved – teens who have had a vastly harder start to life than I ever did. And just like I once had someone who believed in me, I can now believe in them.
This is a transformative power. Every day I see young people coming through the doors of our centre who have been abandoned, abused, and exploited. They’ve been taught that they are unworthy, that they’ll never amount to anything.
A lot of work goes into changing that belief, but there’s one thing that’s absolutely critical. The kids need someone who believes in them – they need a Mrs Mac in their life. Hundreds of times over, I have seen how powerful this is.
I’m incredibly privileged to play that role in the life of some young people here in Vietnam. But changing lives doesn’t have to mean getting on a plane and travelling across the world; where ever we are, we have that same opportunity to draw the best out of others.
Mrs Mac did this for me in the tiny town of Bundarra. I can’t imagine how life would have been without the influence she had on me as I navigated some very difficult years as a teenager.
Now it’s my turn to believe in others, as she believed in me. And this is something you can do too: be that person you always wished you had when life was overwhelming, or you failed, or you felt lost at sea.
Be Mrs Mac for someone who needs you.
Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation rescues kids in crisis.
10 thoughts on “Mrs Mac”
Beautiful, Michael! Thank you for being a Mrs Mac in your little corner of the world, and inspiring others to do the same in ours. Pure gift. Continued blessings on the journey…
Thanks for sharing, Daniel Kerkoff, and also being a Mrs Mac!
May the original Mrs Mac rest in paradise, as her legacy of love continues to live on in the world through the countless lives she’s touched….an eternal ripple of love.
Thanks Michael. You’re stories are always so inspiring!!
You are a truly inspirational person Michael to those you come in contact with. I hope I helped change lives when I was a Cub Leader back in the early eighties. I wonder where all my boys are now and hope they are passing on their knowledge to their children.
Mrs Mac was my Mum.
I remember her staying up late at night to type up your Bundarra Bugles. It was one of the many things Mum would do to support her students, of which you were undoubtedly one of her favourites.
In her last few weeks, she mentioned you regularly with great pride. Please know you were in her thoughts and heart right till the end. Please continue doing what you do and carrying on her legacy.
Karen, it’s so lovely of you to write and to share this with me. Thank you. I was so incredibly fortunate to have your mum support me – I was never the easiest of students to teach so it took a brilliant person to get something good out of me. I have many happy memories of your mum’s classes – and of the Bundarra Bugle!
Michael. Thank you so very much for such a beautiful piece. You always had a special place in Mums heart and she was very proud to have taught you.
Thank you, Steve. I think that everyone who came came into contact with your mum was blessed in some way.
Michael – I’m Bonny- Shirl’s identical twin. Your post brought tears to my eyes. SHE spoke so often of you – with such great pride and love. I, too, am a former English teacher though in my latter years I formed my own accredited training company and specialised in motivation of kids in crisis, literacy and numeracy, university entry level English , retail and small business trading- and everything in between !
I am fascinated by your work. My husband of 54 years died only weeks before Shirl and I’m struggling after 74 years and 9 months being always one of a half. Bereft actually. Have to learn what being an individual is all about !
I’d love to make contact with you Michael. My email address is bonnybuddha@ hotmail.com ( yes – I’m obsessed with Nepal and its people !)
Thank you so much for not only being a part of Shirl’s life, but also for your wondrous description of her impact on you.
With loving memories we both share of a very Special Person,
Bonny ( Wadley)
Thanks Bonny – emailing you now!
This post brought tears to my eyes and touched my heart. Thank you, Michael. And sincere gratitude to the great Mrs Mac. You changed lives.