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The long journey from County Cork to Madrid
Felim Bolster, Upper School Director

Felim Bolster has been in international education for the past 22 years in schools similar to ASM. He has taught in the UK, the Middle East, and Europe.
Originally a science teacher, Mr. Bolster has a BSc in Applied Physics and Medical Technology, a Postgraduate Certificate in Education, and a Masters in Educational Leadership and Management. He has served as a High School Principal and Assistant Principal, and a Secondary School (Grades 6-12) Principal at the American International School in Abu Dhabi, most recently as Head of High School at the International School of Brussels.

I can hardly believe it has been almost one year since I joined ASM. I am grateful to the ASM community for being so welcoming to me. I remain very excited about being part of this wonderful community and hopefully positively impacting the school's future. In many ways, this has been a strange year. Restrictions have meant that it has been challenging to connect face to face with some parts of the school community. I am looking forward to a year ahead with we will hopefully see restrictions start to be removed and a return to more opportunities for students, faculty, and parents to engage in community events once more. 
ASM is a diverse and caring community, and we have the opportunity to have a major impact on the lives of generations of students to come.


I grew up in a small town, Mallow, in County Cork, a region in the south of Ireland. I am the second youngest of six children (two girls and four boys). We were a typical working-class family. My father was an electrician. My mother in these early years stayed at home and focused on the challenging task of raising six children.  When my father died suddenly when I was eleven, it meant my mother needed to find work so we could survive as a family.  

Mom worked a lot with six kids to care for. I can see her in the kitchen with her apron on, preparing a childhood favorite – minced beef fried in onions, topped with Heinz beans and mashed potatoes.  This was a heavenly combination for a growing teen!


I lived a stable childhood. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we always had enough. We are a very close family to this day.  My siblings all have children of their own -- from toddlers to adults in their mid-thirties. We all enjoy each other's company and have a very strong bond. Family is very important to me.
  
I lived in a neighborhood with many kids my age, so we spent our days at school or playing football in the local green on weekends and holidays. During holidays, we were often required to leave the house and not come back until it was time to eat. We always found something to do although there was not much in the way of high-tech options to entertain us.

Music was a central part of our family life, especially when my father was alive. He was passionate about music, especially traditional Irish music. He taught music after work in the evenings to countless budding young musicians. After church every Sunday, he retreated to his armchair in the living room and played the Irish whistle.  He sat there, legs crossed; an average height man with black hair, perfecting tunes there in that chair while the kids read comic books. 

Wherever the Irish national music championships (officially known as Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann) were taking place is where we went for our holidays. My older siblings were often participants in these championships. My eight siblings would sleep together in a large tent on these vacations. While not the most comfortable of times, they were a lot of fun. I have great memories of these family holidays.
 
Although never at a level that my older siblings managed, I played some music growing up although I consider myself a failed musician. My brothers and I followed our father’s example by playing in the local bagpipe band. This allowed us to travel around Ireland, and even on to the US and France. I played in a pipe band from the time I was eleven until I was twenty-two years old. Our trip to the US in 1988 was to Boston, where we were invited to play at a large fundraising event for a US-Irish business consortium. At 17, I flew in a plane for the first time and all my expenses were paid! 

We had ten days to wander about Boston with only one gig to play for the businessmen!  Dr. Tony O’Reilly, former international rugby union player professional Rugby player and soon to be Chairman of H. J. Heinz Company footed the bill. We wound up at Quincy Market, playing our bagpipes for the amusement of the passersby.  We wandered into a local bar one day called the Black Rose and played for the patrons.  This was the time when George Bush was the U.S. President and Dan Quayle his Vice President. Two years ago, I visited Boston and went to see if the Black Rose was still there. Nearly thirty years had passed and it hadn’t changed one bit since we set foot in there so long ago. 
 
I played quite a lot of sport as I grew up like many young kids in Ireland. I played at Hurling and Gaelic Football (our national games), some soccer, and quite a lot of rugby from the age of fifteen onwards. Although I never played at a very high level, rugby became the sport I most enjoyed playing. I continued to play until my early thirties. I watch Rugby almost every week.

There is a commonality between playing rugby and playing the bagpipes. You perform in public and have to put yourself out there. You make mistakes and you have to pick yourself up. You learn to rely on your team. There are bound to be good days and bad ones.  
 
Although I am not a very politically minded person, I do like to keep abreast of local, national, and international political happenings. I believe that being open-minded and informed is an essential part of being a global citizen. I would say that in some ways I am liberally minded. I grew up in a Catholic family that practiced its religion, but I am not a religious person today. I am guided by principles of equity and respect. I feel that everyone should have the right to their own beliefs and values as long as those values do not harm others. I believe in diversity and inclusiveness in society.

Three men who have inspired me in life are Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, and John Hume.  Ali had to fight and sacrifice his Muslim religious beliefs from a young age. Mandela was an outspoken opponent of apartheid in South Africa and spent 27 years in prison for his political beliefs. He always chose to forgive the people who had oppressed him. Hume, a winner of the Noble Peace Prize, was a nationalist politician, one of the architects of the Northern Ireland peace process.  

The men have a few things in common which I respect. They all had firm beliefs and were courageous in their fight for those who needed a voice. They have my total respect and I hope that in some way I have done the same in my life.

My decision to move to Abu Dhabi in the late 90s to teach was a pivotal moment in my life. I was single, and I didn’t know anything about this Middle Eastern country or what constituted the international teaching community. I have always been a risk-taker, who is willing to try something new. This move into the world of international schools has shaped me profoundly in many ways. I opened my eyes to other cultures and people from other cultures. I took to heart the idea of being a global citizen and reveled in the opportunity to work and live in diverse communities. I met my wife Alejandra in Abu Dhabi. I became a father while I was there. I have two sons, Milo (16) and Conor (12). Abu Dhabi was a launching pad for other opportunities and life experiences - moving from there to spend eleven years in Belgium and now Madrid.

I have a singular memory of camping in the desert while I was in Abu Dhabi. My colleagues and I drove out there in our own 4 by 4 vehicles. We lit campfires and drank beers.  We learned to navigate by the stars.  The stillness and the vast expanses of moving sand are unforgettable.

 I will never forget the quality of the light in the desert, especially the early light of dawn. Once, we held a Christmas and Nativity pageant right out there in the desert. There were sixty or seventy of us out there in an environment close to that of the first Nativity. It was a moving experience.

It may be a cliché, but my mother is one of my great inspirations in life. After my father’s death, my mother faced many extreme challenges. She succeeded in raising a family that remains happy and close.  Now that her children are grown, she can take life a bit easier.  She sings in a choir and is a first-rate bridge player.  Her children have the chance today to take care of their mother – do things to make her life easier. I never underestimate her impact on my whole family. I am happy to see her happily retired with her children gathered around.  Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren love their “nana!”. We all love her dearly.