“I learned to read and write. I loved it. It was a place of healing. It is beautiful to be able to pick up a book and understand it. It empowered me as a woman.”

Winnie shares her experience of returning to education as an adult. Winnie's story is shared as part of the #CelebrateLearners2020 campaign and the Learners as Leaders Programme, which is funded by the European Agenda for Adult Learning.

My name is Winnie Coakley. I left school at the age of 14 and had very negative experiences in school. These experiences were traumatic and had a profound impact on my life. In school, I saw a lot of violence. The school was actually known locally as the ‘slaughter school’. We had over 60 people in a class with many children coming from the tenements in the city centre. I was belittled and called names by teachers. 

We were dehumanised. Imagine being told as a little girl that you would never amount to anything. You believe it. In those early years my education was knocked out of me. Back then I didn’t have the words for it but it was trauma. In disadvantaged schools the teachers abused the system. They took advantage and hurt us.

I had to go back and heal. People from situations like that, we are wounded. I really feel that the school failed us. I’m lucky that I had the chance to go back and address this experience and it took years. That is why the door is so hard to open for many people. That was 40 years ago and it should have been a fun and happy time in my life but it was torture and I am not hiding it anymore.

Now I think education is the most important thing. Education gives people freedom. There was one teacher that was good to me in school. She saw I was a storyteller and she used to encourage me. I loved drama and now I have performed in plays and studied the arts and theatre. I always knew there was something better and, in some ways, that awareness was painful. I knew there was better jobs and better opportunities. My reading and writing blocked me. Now I realise that the shame I had been burying myself in, it wasn’t mine. It belonged to the system. When you come from a marginalised background and not having education to fall back on, you’re trying to survive. I had to go back and open doors myself. It was very hard and it’s not always easy for the people around you. They feel threatened and they don’t like it. Some people don’t want to see you moving on or moving up.

DALC (the Dublin Adult Learning Centre) was like a magic box. It was the first door for me.  I learned to read and write. I loved it. It was a place of healing. It is beautiful to be able to pick up a book and understand it. It empowered me as a woman. I had been pushed down but then like a Jack-in-the-Box I came up and it was like get me out of here. Education gives you a sense of who you are and it is the food of life. It gives people from poverty and the inner-city hope. Education is the key. We have so much drugs and crime and education is the only way to address that. Imagine two kids from different circumstances with such different lives. It is like the lotto. It’s so unfair. If you don’t win you have to get the strength to fight back. I’m a seeker and I wanted more. But it is very hard for a lot of people.

 Adult education is non-judgemental and therapeutic, it is a sanctuary.

Since DALC, I studied Addiction Studies in Trinity College Dublin. I have performed on stage with a theatre group and now I am studying Human Spirituality and Development in Marino Institute of Education. I want to empower others. I’m always encouraging others to go back to education. If you’re thinking of going to do a course, do it. Don’t be afraid, it will bring you where you need to go. Adult education is non-judgemental and therapeutic, it is a sanctuary. For anyone teaching in this sector, please remember where people are coming from. They need time.

Education is like a library. Everyone should have the keys to open up them doors.


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