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

A lecturer who was raised by heroin addict parents and lived in deep poverty with five siblings has revealed how a primary school teacher taught her how to clean herself after she arrived to school every day unwashed. 

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

Her own teenage years saw her lost to petty crime; she was arrested for stealing, fighting and taking drugs before falling pregnant at just 15. She ended up homeless before finally getting her life back on track and gaining a degree at Trinity College, Dublin – with her parents Tony and Tilly by her side. 

Speaking about the complexities of addiction and childhood poverty, she told BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour this week how a kind primary school teacher spotted 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 addict parents in the West Midlands. Her new memoir Poor has been widely praised for recounting the complexities of growing up in poverty

Describing how her chaotic childhood impacted her early years at school, she said: ‘We weren’t taught how to wash, we didn’t have toothbrushes or towels in the house. We often didn’t have sheets on the bed’.

The mother-of-three explained that she quickly became the child that her peers didn’t want to sit next to, saying she often had nits and was the ‘smelly kid’ who they would call ‘horrible names’. 

She explained to BBC presenter Nuala Mcgovern how she would roll out of bed, and run to school having not washed or changed her underwear. 

Revealing the kind approach of her nursery and reception teacher, Miss Arkinson, she said she ‘never, ever shamed me’, telling the programme that instead she gave her a packet of clean underwear, and taught her how to wash.

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

She said the teacher, Miss Arkinson, would quietly bring her in a washbag to school so she could clean herself

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

The academic pictured as a teenager; she was arrested for stealing and taking drugs - and fell pregnant at 15 - before turning her life around with education

The academic pictured as a teenager; she was arrested for stealing and taking drugs – and fell pregnant at 15 – before turning her life around with education

Dr O’Sullivan explains: ‘This particular day, I remember she took me into the bathroom, her and another assistant. I was convinced I’d something wrong because I was always in trouble.’

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

The academic said her teacher would then leave a fresh flannel and towel behind her desk and every morning the young girl would come in before her classmates and wash in the school bathrooms. 

Dr Katriona O'Sullivan's memoir Poor

Dr Katriona O’Sullivan’s memoir Poor

She told the show: ‘I was really ashamed in that moment because I knew that they knew that 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, would encourage her to take her GCSEs, spotting her academic talent.  

Dr O’Sullivan told BBC presenter Nuala that the poorest in society are often limited by people’s low expectations of what they can achieve, saying there’s a ‘generic judgement’ of those in poverty.  

In her memoir, the academic also describes how a student at the university she now teaches at once recognised her as her former dinner lady.

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

To which she replied: ‘Ah, come on. Did you not know dinner ladies have brains?’

She told BBC West Midlands: ‘I think that people in privileged positions need to really understand, like, how far reaching poverty is. And how it can affect your whole life.’ 

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