When Susan Ryan taught me

IEU member Jan Glazier shares a personal memory about the exciting year a young Susan Ryan was her teacher – and the huge impact she had.

I was devastated when I heard of Susan Ryan AO’s passing. She was only five years older than I am, and I was always tempted to contact her and let her know what an impact her year of teaching had on me. I can’t do that now. Ryan achieved so much in her life but I will always remember her as my most inspirational teacher.

I attended St Patrick’s at Church Hill in The Rocks (since closed). There were many disadvantages to travelling from Eastwood to the city for five years and having school friends all over Sydney, but the advantages outweighed them. Our school had also had Germaine Greer as a part-time teacher some years earlier.

Susan Ryan had finished her degree and was hoping to do honours part-time while teaching. However, she didn’t attend Sydney Teachers College although she did have a scholarship. Her memoir, Catching the Waves, explains why. She was expected to attend the College for a Diploma of Education at the end of her degree, but was rejected from both the honours course and Dip Ed for wanting to undertake them part time because she was getting married. Her year at St Patrick’s was her only year of teaching.

My memories are of an amazing, bright, inspirational teacher who gave us Lord of the Flies to read, with no introduction, and asked us to write a review and analysis, so she could decide who could do English honours. She had me on that first task! I was one of the five or six girls who did English honours. Ryan had a passion for literature – books, poetry, Shakespeare and plays – and it was contagious.

We only ever played one trick on her, she groaned and was bored and we never did it again as she had so much to talk about and share with us. Highlights of my honours sessions with her were the times she took us to films and theatre, such as Electra by Sophocles, plays in Darlinghurst, a review, and usually with her handsome fiance, Richard Butler. For highly impressionable fourth-year girls, this was the ultimate in romance and glamour.

Ryan married Butler in 1963 (more glamour!) and fell pregnant. For that time it was an enviable life. Many of the ideas and discussions Ryan instigated raised questions about the role of women and their rights in society.

Susan Ryan certainly made an impression on me and I wasn’t at all surprised to see her rise in politics to promote women’s rights and equity. I am one of the women who took advantage of some of the changes she championed – I could do my own degrees part-time.