Dear 2020 – Day 82 (Mothering Sunday Update)

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Well, 2020. You certainly turned out to have a nature only a mother could love. Fires, floods and now this.

I write now at the close of Mothering Sunday. Reading now what I wrote then, when you were 9 days old, I wince. I wished you dull. I wished you fairer, kinder, more happy than your siblings 2019 and 2018. Look at you now? 82 days old and so hard to love.

Recalling my wide-eyed, new-year wish-making, I find myself curating a curious mix of shame, defiance and hope. Like a parent, I can see that you are not living up to expectations; like a parent, I fear for you; like a parent, I regret the way things are going. And yet, like a parent, I cannot give up on you. Even as you continue to behave so badly. Or so it seems.

You are far from ordinary and the big stories of your life so far have been nothing but horror. You have a lot to answer for and there is so much you could do better. But, there is so much about you that is admirable and good. So much ordinary kindness and extraordinary courage that your acts and errors are requiring from people across the globe.

Yes, you are far from dull. And you have a very dark side. Below is what I said back when you were tiny, just 9 days old:

Welcome to the world, new-born thing. I hope you find your feet quickly. And I have some other hopes for you too. Your older sister, 2019, was a fiery one. Capable of so much good, but full of contradictions and often quite disagreeable. That’s teenagers, I suppose. Mind you, she was nowhere near as confounding and unpredictable as her older brother 2016. You never knew what was coming next with him. I wonder how he looks now, four years on.

Anyway, after 25 years of teaching, and 16 years as a parent, I know not to judge one sibling by another. Each child is wonderfully, bracingly different; unique individuals with promise and potential; needs and demands; fears, expectations and hopes. The poet Philip Larkin wrote a poem to the newly born daughter of his friend, Kingsley Amis. He wishes her something “none of the others would”. Instead of wishing her beauty, talent and love, he says: “May you be ordinary […] In fact, may you be dull.

My hope for you is like that of Larkin. You’ll have your moments, for sure, and as with all your family, there will be sadness, despair, loneliness – horror even, sad to say. But… I hope that the weight and volume of all the unseen good, and the plain day-to-day ordinary that you think and do, all this stuff will be the thing that truly defines you. I hope you are fair: or at least, fairer than your forebears – gradually but meaningfully fairer. And kinder too.

There are lots of other things I hope for you, new-born thing. But Larkin’s odd and surprising incantation says it so much better. He wishes balance and ordinariness. A life more ordinary: “If that is what a skilled, / Vigilant, flexible, / Unemphasised, enthralled / Catching of happiness is called”.

Having re-read these words, despite all the chaos, confusion and despair you’re causing 2020, I still have hope for you. Alongside the awful, there is still the wonderful. There is even some unintended good coming from your most troubled acts.

Life with you is anything but ordinary, 2020. For so many, it must feel like day after day of creeping horror. This is a crushing truth: you are doing so much harm.

And yet; and yet. Despite everything you’ve done so far, I stand by my hopes for you. There is good to you. And, like a parent who can somehow always see the good in its errant teenager; can still sense the virtue amongst all the vice; the kindness in the carnage: I’m sticking by you.

Still hoping, 2020.

Leo

International day of the girl

Benazir Bhutto was a Pakistani politician who served as prime minister of Pakistan from 1988-1990 and again from 1993-1996. She was the first woman to head a democratic government in a Muslim majority nation.  Ideologically liberal, and a secularist, she was a controversial figure in Pakistan, feared and revered in equal measure for her modernising views and charismatic leadership.

Bhutto’s political life is far too complex to do justice to in just a few minutes, dogged as it was by controversy and accusations of bribery, nepotism and corruption; Bhutto was ousted from power through a rigged election. After a period of time in opposition, she came to power again.  Although her efforts at reform and liberalisation were thwarted, her name was synonymous with democracy and she became a global icon of women’s rights.  Bhutto was respected in the west as a stateswoman of global reach and significance.

After losing elections in 1997 and 1998, Bhutto went into self-exile in Dubai from whence she continued to lead her party through proxies. She returned to Pakistan in 2007 to contest the 2008 elections.  She knew well her return to Pakistan put her own life at risk.  Bhutto was assassinated in a suicide bomb attack in Rawalpindi.  Al Qaeda claimed responsibility, although the Pakistani Taliban were widely suspected as being behind the attack that ended her life at the age of 54.

Spool forward half a decade. On the 9th October 2012, Malala Yousafsai was climbing onto a bus in Taliban-ruled North Western Pakistan.  She was 14 years old.  As she boarded the bus, a gunman appeared, asked for her by name, and shot her in the head.  She was left for dead.  Miraculously, however, Malala survived the attack.  She and her family were flown over to the UK and settled in Birmingham.  The reason for the attack, for which the hard-line Taliban claimed responsibility, was an open diary that Malala has been writing and publishing, under a pen name, arguing and campaigning for the rights of women and, in particular, for the right for girls to receive an education.

The story of her recovery – from delicate surgery at a Pakistani military hospital to further operations and rehabilitation in the UK, was widely covered in the media. Malala was discharged from hospital in January 2013 and her life now is unimaginably different to anything she may have envisaged when she was an anonymous voice chronicling the fears of schoolgirls under the shadow of the Taliban.

Malala has become an international symbol for, and advocate of, the fight to improve girls’ literacy around the world. She is iconic of the power of human will to overcome brutality and marginalisation.  In 2014, Malala became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.  This year she was made the youngest ever UN Messenger of Peace.

Earlier this week, exactly 5 years to the day that she was shot, Malala began a course in PPE at Oxford University. She is at Lady Margaret Hall, the same college that Benazir Bhutto had attended, and following the very same course.  In Bhutto’s day it was an all-women college (as it was when my mother was there); in Malala’s, it is a mixed college (as it was when I was at the same college): co-education has become very much the norm in our part of the world.

Indeed, we live in a part of the world where the idea of equal access to education is taken as read; a given. Lucky us.  The world still has a long way to go, even in our supposedly enlightened times, before we have a society where girls and women enjoy equality and fairness.

A BBC article published on 10th October listed the 10 toughest places in the world for girls’ education.  9 of the 10 countries listed are in Africa.  In the Central African Republic there is one teacher for every 80 pupil; in Niger only 17% of women between the ages of 15 and 24 are literate.  Only 1 in a 100 girls Burkina Faso completes secondary school.  In Ethiopia, over 40% of girls are married before the age of 18 – this applies across all of sub-Saharan Africa.

Yesterday (11th October) was international day of the girl.  And with over 130 million girls still out of school, the global campaign for the right of access to schooling and education for girls is as urgent as ever.  Icons such as Malala, following in the footsteps of her own hero Benazir Bhutto, can influence and draw attention to the host of issues that affect girls and women across the world: poverty, disempowerment, lack of education, sexual and physical abuse.

Who knows what things Malala will go on to achieve in her life? Because she has been exceptionally brave; because she has been exceptionally fortunate to escape an attempt on her life; because she is using her extraordinary voice to change the world; and because she knows the liberating power of a good education.

Handedness and points of difference

Studies suggest that 90% of the global human population is right-handed and 10% left-handed. This means there are about 60 left-handers in this room.  A minority group. If you are left-handed you are – well – a bit different.

It turns out that men are more likely to express a strongly dominant left hand than women. If you are a Muppet, however, it’s almost certain that you’ll be left-handed.  This is because a right-handed puppeteer (and we can assume that about 90% of puppeteers are right-handed) – they will use their right hand to articulate the puppet’s head, and the left to move the arm-rod.  So, in the world of Muppets, and other hand-puppets, it is the right-handed Muppet that is the minority animal.

Simpsons fans will have noticed that Bart Simpson– and indeed Ned Flanders – are both lefties. This may be a function of the fact that the creator of the Simpsons is left-handed – as was Jim Henson, who invented the Muppets.

Yet, despite the common terminology of “left-handed” or “right-handed”, the distinction is less than absolute. Some of us are more ‘handed’ than others.  We are in effect dotted along a continuum between strong left and strong right.  In between these extremes lie various degrees of mixed-handedness and ambidexterity.  Some of us will prefer the left for certain tasks but not others – we might write with our left hand but play tennis with our right, for example.

Interactive sports such as table tennis, badminton, cricket, and tennis have an over-representation of left-handedness. In cricket, for example, around 1 in 5 on the all-time list of international male cricketers bat left handed.

The smaller the physical distance between participants, the greater the number of lefties. In fencing, for example, it seems that about half the participants are left-handed.  Plenty of boxers are ‘southpaws’. Meanwhile, in non-interactive sports, such as swimming, we see no over-representation of left-handers.  It’s not a relevant factor.

Handedness is something of an evolutionary mystery. One of the earliest theories proposed that handedness in humans was originally evenly distributed, but hand-to-hand battle in the ancient world killed off the lefties because they held the sword with their left hand and the shield in their right, thus leaving the heart much less protected than for righties, who held the shield on the left. As the lefties perished on the battlefield, so did their genes.

A later theory proposed pretty much the opposite — that left-handedness gave warriors a competitive advantage “for much the same reason left-handed tennis players, boxers, or fencers have an advantage.”

In a book called ‘Right Shift Theory [1985], Marian Annett observes that animals have roughly 50-50 split between righties and lefties. Your domestic dog, cat, rat or rabbit has a pretty much even chance of being left or right pawed.  But, for humanity the distribution of preference and performance is dramatically shifted to the right.  Why?  This human bias was triggered, says Annett, by a shift to the left hemisphere of the brain for certain cognitive functions, most likely speech. . . .   The development of complex speech has led to right-hand dominance.

It was once hypothesized that the cultural link between left-handedness and negativity arose due to the left hand’s use for hygiene purposes in non-industrialized countries – that is, wiping your bottom. However, the association has much deeper roots, including the very etymology of the word “left”, which derives from the Anglo-Saxon lyft which means ‘weak’ or ‘broken’.

Even modern dictionaries include such meanings for left as “awkward,” “clumsy,” “inept,” and “maladroit,” the latter one borrowed from French, translated literally as “bad right.” Most definitions of left reduce to an image of doubtful sincerity and clumsiness, and the Latin word for left, sinister, is a well-known negative connotation.  There are many references to God’s right hand – not so many – in fact none that I could find – to God’s left hand.

This tells us a little about the cultural bias that has existed around handedness.  It is not all that long ago in this part of the world that, if a child showed left-hand preference, she was educated (that is, forced) to use the right hand.  I can remember a boy in my class at school called Stuart.  He had terrible hand-writing – a tiny, spidery drawl across the page that often meant his teachers got frustrated at marking his work.  The reason?  He preferred to write with his left hand but his mother was very superstitious, associating left-handedness with negative forces.  It was she who insisted that Stuart learned to write with his non-dominant right hand.  Don’t worry, he’s now a very successful businessman.  And a good touch-typist.

Why talk about left-handedness? Well, it’s a point of difference.  And, I’d like to suggest, that difference is good.  We should not only tolerate and respect difference – we should celebrate it – loudly!  What a tedious and sterile world it would be if we were all right-handed; all good at the same things; all interested in the same things; held the same views; wore the same clothes.

I’m not saying it’s cool to be left-handed, any more than it’s cool to be right-handed. In fact, often we don’t even notice.  A person is a collection of features which, when all added up, amount to something unique.  What’s cool is authenticity – being who you are and letting others be who they are.

So here’s to lefties. Here’s to the leftie in all of us – even us common old righties.  Here’s to all our many points of difference.

What’s the point of school?

These were some thoughts at the start of the new school year at St Peter’s in 2018.

This is a strange question for a Head Master to ask, perhaps – but: what is the point of school?

For the grown-ups in a school like mine, for the teaching and support staff, the school provides us with our jobs, our livelihoods, our vocations and a very significant part of our life’s purpose. Every teacher will have an answer to the question: what is the point of school?  But, what of the pupils? For the 571 pupils starting this new academic year at St Peter’s, what is the point of school?   I hope that the most immediate thoughts are things like these: to learn, to have fun, to make friends, to play, to get involved in all manner of activities.

Yet, the most obvious answer is that they’re in school because they have to be. All children have to be educated as a matter of law.  And it’s a matter of law because education is a fundamental human right and essential for the exercise of all other human rights. It is worth reminding ourselves of this blindingly obvious truth. Education empowers and liberates human beings.  This is a fact that we sometimes lose sight of in the Western world.  We can become rather blasé.  In emerging nations, there is an insatiable hunger for education as the route to a happy, independent life.

Parents in this country have a choice as to how they would like their children educated. They can choose for their children to be educated at home.   The vast majority of parents, however, choose to send their children to some version of the institution known as ‘school’.  In this country, most children attend a school that provides education free of charge – state education.  The remaining minority of parents make the choice to send their child to a fee-paying independent school.  Like St Peter’s.

Interestingly, the word ‘school’ derives from the Greek word ‘schole’, with the paradoxical meaning “leisure” or “free time”. When school was invented, it was about putting people into groups so that they could learn in their free time.  So, right at the start, we have the idea that school is about learning and about freedom.

The Revd. Dr Martin Luther King once gave a lecture entitled ‘The Purpose of Education’. Dr King summarised what he believed was the true goal of education in three words: “intelligence plus character“.  By that, I wonder if he meant that education is not only about filling young minds with knowledge and equipping them with a range of skills and aptitudes; but that it is also about developing the whole person; shaping and nurturing the values, the beliefs, the individual character of every child. “Education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.” (WB Yeats).

It is, of course, hard to identify a single purpose to school. Everything is important.   Our academic learning is vital to grow our own individual intelligence to its full and varied potential, to experience the delight that comes from learning new things and acquiring new skills and, of course, to strive for the best possible outcomes in formal exams.  The certificates matter: they form the passports to the next stage.  But, just as my passport is not me – which is good news if your passport photo is anything like mine – the grades we achieve are not the full story; but they do provide the keys that open doors. With this in mind, it is terrific that this summer’s exam results at both A Level and GCSE have been very strong indeed.  This school can provide its pupils with the conditions for its pupils to achieve their own personal best in exams – with the right effort – to secure the passport.  But, this is not the true purpose of education.

As the new school year begins, perhaps more than any other day, we will all of us be feeling a heady mix of hopes and fears. We human beings are made up of a shifting flux of feelings, reactions, emotions, opinions, judgements.  We carry in us a finely tuned emotional dashboard – we all have to learn to manage that dashboard.  This self-management is the most important learning there is.  Through a good education, we learn how to manage our inner emotions; how to direct our attention purposefully; to look after our minds; to control and look after our bodies.

We need to learn how to behave. We have to develop the inter-personal skill-set, the habits and manners, of a fully rounded person.  Education is about becoming the best possible version of ourselves.  It is about becoming fully human.

Thus understood, our education never ends. It goes way beyond our school years.  The point of our school years is to set the pattern and lay the foundations of our lives.

A school is a community of individuals. Every individual matters.  We want each individual pupil to develop his or her own intelligence – to grow the mind – to develop wisdom and insight. We want you to enjoy physical activity, culture, the arts. We want each pupil to find ways to explore their spiritual self.  We want you to thrive on the friendship and shared enjoyment that comes from a vibrant communal life: in house, in teams, in group activities of all kinds.   We want each individual pupil to feel valued and respected for who they are; and to grow in confidence so that, when you come to the end of your school days, you can look backwards with gladness and look forwards with confidence.

School should be ‘serious fun’. School should be about enjoying our learning; facing the hurdles we have to jump; keeping a sense of perspective; being active; trying new things; playing a part in something bigger than your own individual self; growing and staying healthy in mind and body.  A great education should instil a balance of confidence blended with humility; independence tempered by a sense of social responsibility; individuality anchored in a deep sense of communal identity.

What’s the point of school? I think that the point of school is to begin the lifelong project of educating the mind, the body and the soul.  This is the all-round education I want to offer all the pupils in my school this year.

‘Dear Mum and Dad’. On being fully present.

Dear Mum and Dad

Please don’t worry too much about what you might have heard about the fire at school. We’re all fine. And it was quite exciting with all the fire engines and confusion.

I did break my leg jumping out of the second floor window but the school nurse was very nice and the hospital is so close by, it wasn’t too painful walking there. They put a cast on after a few hours waiting and I’m fine now. The doctor said I should be back on games in a year or so.

My new boyfriend Jerry has been a great help. He’s one of the hospital porters and is previously married with two tiny children who are just lovely. So cute. He’s very keen to bring them down to meet the rest of our family before we make any further plans. I know you’ll like him.

I’d better go now – my room-mate Sally has made some friends from outside of school and we’re meeting them in the supermarket car park down the road. They sound really interesting.

I’ll call soon – hope you’re all well and the dog isn’t missing me too much.

Lots of love.

Becky.

PS.

None of the above is true.

What is true is that I think I’ve failed my English exam.

I just wanted you to keep a sense of proportion.

This letter, and versions of it, have been doing the rounds for a few years now. It’s a neat way of raising the question of how we keep things in perspective in our daily lives; how we maintain a healthy sense of proportion.

Parents want certain things for their children; we all have our goals, ambitions, and hopes. Each one of us lives with personal fears and none of us is free from problems. The very fact of being alive – that stuff happens to us as well as because of us – means that with the smooth comes the rough. You cannot have one without the other.

The fact is: everything matters. Details matter. The daily events and challenges, the problems and their solutions, these are the stuff of our daily existence. Under-performing in an exam is not what any of us want; failure matters. And, particularly in the happy absence of greater threats and worries, this is a big deal. The worries of tomorrow do have to be met. We should not respond by drifting off into a comforting netherworld of reassuring psychobabble or bury ourselves in distractions, worthy or otherwise. Nor is it productive to beat ourselves up mercilessly over our failures.

Each of us experiences different doses of rough and smooth through our lifetimes. There are common experiences – exam or interview nerves, pain, bereavement – but there is no sense that these are evenly distributed (far from it), nor that we each feel these human experiences in the same way. We hear news every day of fellow human beings far worse off than ourselves; people who would rightly be staggered at the smallness of our worries compared to relentless and fundamental sufferings that others endure day by day. And yet, for me at least, I’ve never found the point that there are plenty people worse off than me to be of that much comfort; nor that it could have been much worse if things had happened a little differently.

So, how might we get relief (if you’ll pardon the pun) from life’s ups and downs? How can we retain a healthy sense of perspective? Lots of wise things have been said by thinkers and writers over the ages on the question of staying happiness and wellbeing. In these rather gloomy January days, such questions may be even more pressing than in the lighter days of summer.

Some suggest that it is about taking time to step back from, perhaps to hover above, our problems. This elevation then gives the chance to consider the issue in the broader sweep of our lives. What looks like a big bump when viewed up close, diminishes when we widen the lens of perception. It’s still there, and needs to be clambered over, but when we then descend back to the present issue, we may feel it is less imposing.

A second suggestion is to lose ourselves for some time, and regularly, in the concerns of others. We tend to get mired in our own problems, turning inward and growing depressed and frustrated. Finding ways to serve and help others makes us feel better. Extending ourselves to others helps recalibrate our settings and refreshes our perspective.

Alan Watts, a British philosopher whose birthday it was yesterday, argued that the heart of the issue of perspective is to do with our desire for security and certainty. In his 1951 book, ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’, he suggests that we misguidedly pursue certainty; but this is not an achievable aim. It also keeps us oscillating between an unsatisfying view of past and an insecure view of the future – neither of which provide a sense of wellbeing. As such, he says, we need to accept the fluid and unpredictable nature of things. Watts goes on to say that we are at our happiest when we are fully immersed in the present – rather than dwelling on the past or agonising about what lies ahead. We can take control of certain things (the revision for the English exam); other things happen to us (fires, floods, illness). But the thing which we can always reliably control is our attention to the present moment.

Watts wants us to put our full effort into the here and now. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think about the future and respect and treasure the past. We each exist on a timeline and we do need to prepare for what lies further up the line. Rather, he suggests that the current moment is where our default setting should be. Being fully present – being concentrated on the task at hand – these are the times when we are most productive. When we are painting, or playing hockey, or solving a maths equation, or playing the oboe – we are not thinking, ‘I am playing the oboe’ or ‘i am solving this quadratic equation.’ We are what we are doing.

So, the third suggestion is that we should endeavour to be fully present in what we are doing. We should maximise the amount of our time we spend in this mode of full absorption. This is the state in which we are happiest; when the issue of proportion does not trouble us. And at the other times, the good and the not so good, when we stand back and take stock of the landscape of our lives, we need to keep a healthy sense of perspective. And, having taken a good look, we need to get back to the task at hand with our fullest and best attention.

Children’s Mental Health and Wellbeing – Prof Tanya Byron inspires and encourages St Peter’s York staff

“Kids should understand their brains; they should understand their whole bodies”.

So said Professor Tanya Byron, consultant clinical psychologist, as she gave an interactive presentation to the teaching and support staff at St Peter’s School, 3-18, the week before the pupils returned for the new academic year.

Professor Byron is a well-known broadcaster and columnist specialising in children’s mental health.   It turns out that she has a soft spot for York, having studied as an undergraduate at York University. So, despite her crammed diary, we were lucky in tempting her up to St Peter’s for an afternoon to talk to our teaching and support staff.

Tanya combines expert knowledge with unstuffy directness and a winning ability to take the stigma out of some very complex mental health issues. Despite the serious nature of her subject, her explanations are gloriously free from clinical pomposity; she connects brilliantly with people and she is not afraid to make jokes – particularly at her own expense. A published author, whose expert opinion is sought on myriad facets of parenting, Professor Byron told her audience that her children have promised her they will write a book on her. The working title? “Great with other people’s kids; sh*t with her own”.

Yes, she’s a straight-talking Professor. Disarmingly honest, likely to call a spade a spade (this goes down well in Yorkshire), Professor Byron encouraged colleagues working across the age range, from Nursery to Sixth Form, to talk openly about mental health concerns. Her talk addressed the psychology behind a wide range of issues and she went on to share various ideas on how to begin to address anxiety, depression, self-harm and eating disorders.

In her talk, Professor Byron described the children of 21st century Britain as “the most emotionally articulate generation of all” who are “better at asking for help” than any before. This is the good news – because the mental health issues they are facing are greater than ever before. “We need to understand the psychology of anxiety”, said Professor Byron, explaining that 75% of individual mental health issues will manifest when a person is between the ages of 14 and 23. She described the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) as being “in absolute crisis” and urged schools – particularly those with strong pastoral care such as independent boarding schools – to lead the way in preventing and managing mental health issues in the young.

In a balanced message, Professor Byron also warned against the “ridiculous over-protectiveness of our children” of which some parents are guilty, citing the effect that a risk-averse society has on children who “don’t know how to fail” and “lack emotional resilience”. She urged schools to encourage risk-taking (within sensible limits). “What child in their right mind is going to want to climb a tree that has been deemed safe?”, she quipped, and went on to celebrate the value of boredom – “It grows your imagination” – and the perils of over-praising children.

In just short of 90 minutes, Professor Byron gave us a “decatastrophised” but urgent message that the mental wellbeing of our children should be high up every school and every parent’s list of things to talk about – and that we need to get busy doing something about it.

Professor Tanya Byron spoke to 200 staff at St Peter's 3-18 on children's mental health

Professor Tanya Byron spoke to 200 staff at St Peter’s 3-18 on children’s mental health