Shirley Kalinauckas – a passion for social justice and the environment

I was born in Sudbury on 9 March 1952 into a working class family. My father worked in a factory which made diesel fuel injection components so I remember him in oily overalls, and that he often worked nights which made family life stressful at times. My mother was a housewife, though later on she had a part-time job in the same factory as my father.

With her younger brother and sister

My parents, my grandmother, my older half-brother, my younger brother and sister and I all lived together – seven in the same small house.

My Nana was a charlady for a family who had a daughter the same age as me and Nana was allowed to bring me home some of her books. I read a lot of Enid Blyton! But it got me hooked on reading and from then on I read avidly. It was not really the thing to do in my family, nor was education an expectation. My secondary school was a bilateral school (both a grammar school and a secondary modern in one building), and I was put in the grammar school stream.

My mother’s family was very poor. Her younger sister had passed the 11+ but never went to grammar school because they couldn’t afford the uniform. For me it was quite difficult: I was studious but there was nowhere to do homework. I don’t know where all this self-motivation came from but I loved studying and wanted to do A levels and go to university.  My parents’ view was “What is the point of a girl going to university? You’ll just get married and it will all be wasted.” Of course there were no tuition fees in those days and I would get a full grant so I would have been able to support myself. But they really would have preferred me to get a job and bring some income into the family.

When I left school I travelled in France for a few months and then, not really sure what I wanted to do, I decided to apply to university with the help of one of my old English teachers who persuaded my parents that I should.  But when I completed the UCCA (university application) form I didn’t notice a box indicating any areas of the UK not to be considered and thus found myself with a place at the new University of Ulster at Coleraine, to read English. This was 1971. Northern Ireland in the early Seventies was a war zone – I remember coming out of York Street station in Belfast into a huge area of flattened buildings. Funnily enough I do not remember feeling afraid.  I suppose I had the optimism of youth on my side, but my parents were worried about me.

I met Mark fairly immediately. He was in his second year and had actually chosen to go to Coleraine because they offered a Social Administration course there. We married in the April of my final year (1974) when Mark’s parents were home on leave from working abroad. We were married in Sudbury Roman Catholic church, but at that time I had not yet become a Catholic.

I then went back to Northern Ireland to take my finals. It was a difficult time because of the Loyalist workers’ strike so communication with my new husband was limited.  He wanted to come to meet me when my exams were over but there were no ferries to the North so I travelled down to Dublin by bus and we had a romantic reunion in Dublin bus station! A few years ago when one of our sons was at university he and his flatmates were discussing their parents and he told them that his dad was sport mad and his mum liked reading and doing the Guardian crossword.  His flatmates said ‘They don’t sound very well suited!’  But it will be our 44th wedding anniversary this April so it must have been opposites attracting.

During my time in Northern Ireland I helped at the Corrymeela Community (founded in 1965 as a place of gathering, work, faith and discussion to bring people of different backgrounds, different political and religious beliefs and different identities together) and enjoyed working with the young people there.

A career in teaching

Mark and I had decided to settle in London, as Mark had already got a job as a social worker there. I had decided to become a teacher and did a PGCE at London University Institute of Education.  By 1975 I was a teacher and Mark a social worker with the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham for which they rewarded us with a council flat on the eleventh storey of a tower block opposite the Civic Centre Dagenham, so that was our first real home together.

As a young teacher

The first school I taught in was Eastbury Comprehensive in Barking. I taught all ages, but I loved the A level English literature teaching. There were very few A level students but they were really keen to learn. After a few years I got a job as second in the English Department of a Catholic secondary school in Walthamstow. Whilst there I did a part-time MA at London University which I very much enjoyed.

One sadness for Mark and me was that we had been unable to start a family, but we adopted a baby boy in 1983 and then a baby girl in 1986, (and then in 1991 we had a baby boy ourselves) and so I stopped work for a few years.  During this time I decided I would like to do adult literacy but the course I had enrolled on was cancelled and around this time a job came up at a Catholic Secondary school in Woodford Green supporting children with learning difficulties.  Thus I moved into the whole area of Special Needs and spent the last 16 years of my career as the Learning Support Manager at a comprehensive in Wanstead.  Although I kept up my A Level teaching the rest of the work was very varied, working with students with difficulties such as dyslexia, behaviour problems and Asperger Syndrome.  It also involved working with parents and with other professionals such as educational psychologists and with training other teachers about special needs.  I thoroughly enjoyed my work but it was stressful and demanding and by the time I was 60 I felt ready to retire.

Mark and I had decided to move to Suffolk (for me back to Suffolk) when we retired. I love it here and feel pretty well settled into village life.  I’m in the WI, the Craft Group and the Gardening Club. I love gardening (something I inherited from my parents I think) and am at my happiest if I have spent an entire day either in the garden or on the allotment.

The part played by faith in my life

Religion has been important to me for most of my life apart from a rebellious teenager phase.  I was christened into the Church of England, but my family didn’t go to church. However, my best friend was a Baptist so I used to go to church with her.  I remember there was lots of Bible study.  We even went to a Billy Graham rally in Wembley.  However, I was a teenager by this stage and was beginning to be a bit sceptical about religion.

When I met Mark Catholicism was a mystery to me, and I had not yet become a Catholic when we got married. Mark introduced me to a lovely young priest whom he knew from a youth group, and I was received into the Church in the mid-Seventies. I do still have a lot of questions about faith and am a bit wary of people who seem so certain and unquestioning. My biggest reservation about the Church was – and is – the marginalisation of women, yet St Paul says “In Christ there is no male or female.”  It seems in all the major world religions women at a daily, grassroots level contribute a hugely significant amount but at the hierarchical level they have no power at all.

One of my nieces (who was not brought up with any religion) asked me recently ‘Why do you call God the Father when he lets terrible things happen?” I said that your own children naturally grow away from you, and as they get older they may do things which disappoint or even horrify you, and it’s the same with God – He can’t stop us, but He still loves us.

Mark and I have many friends who are not religious and we are always slightly aghast at how negative they (and indeed society generally) are about religion.  It’s always hard to defend some of the things that are done in the name of religion and in the end all you can do is show your faith by the way that you live and how you interact with people.  We enjoy talking about aspects of faith, and have joined the discussion group in the parish.

As for wider beliefs, my parents were rather anti-establishment and left wing in their views, and these values have stayed with me. I am very engaged with some concerns, especially environmental issues.  This has been the case since the Eighties when people were beginning to talk about CFCs. I always took part in local events then and we were also members of CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and used to take the children on marches and rallies.

A passion for the environment

The Pope’s Encyclical Laudato Si’ on care for the environment is very important to me. Some parishes have really taken this on board, for example in working for the Live Simply award. Mark and I are long-term supporters of CAFOD, which is the chosen channel in this country for the promotion of Laudato Si’. It’s depressing that so many people (even within the Catholic community) take such a short-term and ‘what’s in it for us?’ view when Pope Francis is urging us to tackle poverty and do what we can to preserve the environment for those who come after us.