When he was little, my brother had a habit of wandering off. One time, he was playing cricket aged about 10. The captain of his team had put him in the outfield – fine leg or somewhere similarly remote – right next to the boundary rope. Adjacent to this particular cricket pitch was a copse. And in the copse was a stream. It was favourite place for children at the school to make dams. My brother was one of the keenest dam builders. And a less keen cricketer. In an act of apparently insouciant disobedience, at the change of an over, he simply wandered off. It was a telling comment on his contribution to the team that his absence was not noticed for some time. However, when his escape was finally discovered, my brother was tracked down by the fearsome Mr Evans – and roundly reprimanded. Not so much for his lack of team spirit – though this was of course the case – but for his disobedience. Fancy wandering off like that?
In 1895, Annie Londonderry became the first woman to ride a bicycle around the world. Back then, bikes were pretty uncomfortable. What makes her story even more remarkable is that she’d hardly ever ridden a bike before she set off on a journey that took her across North America, Europe and Asia. She left behind her husband and three children to spend 15 months on the road in order to settle a wager between two rich Boston businessmen. Quite specifically, they wagered that no woman could cycle around the world in 15 months and earn $5,000 while doing so. Annie Londonderry proved them wrong. She made money through advertising, attaching posters and banners to her bicycle. Not only was she made of strong stuff physically, Annie Londonderry was an entrepreneurial, defiant, norm-breaker. An icon of independence. Fancy wandering off like that?
How to wander
Of course, I am not saying that children should be disobedient, wilful or disrespectful. As a parent of three teenage children, there are moments when polite obedience seems a very attractive idea. And as a school, we expect gentleness, courtesy and respect for others. Equally, we don’t want our children to be meek, sheepish, cautious. We want them to have some of the spirit and adventure of Annie Londonderry. We want them to have confidence, purpose, energy. Of course they can build dams – but not at the expense of the cricket team.
We want them to develop resilience and resourcefulness. These qualities also need to be tempered by softer values – kindness, appreciation of difference, playfulness, spirit. As I have always said, school should be serious fun. The past 18 months of restrictions to our freedom of movement have heightened – in many – a wanderlust. A desire to travel. To wander off. And we could all do with plenty of fun.
One of the great icons of serious fun is Albert Einstein. A playful genius with a deep sense of humanity. He famously said:
“Life is like a bicycle. To keep your balance, you have to keep moving.”
Across society, individuals, households, schools and organisations have had to show remarkable resilience and resourcefulness in dealing with the imbalances of recent times. “You have to keep moving”. Resilience is when you have to ride your bike through a pot-hole or a puddle. Resourcefulness is when you find a way to swerve around the pot-hole. Both skills – and many others besides – are needed in the journey of life.
The process of growing up is about developing ones sense of individual self and aligning this with a range of obligations and responsibilities to the world around us. Each individual draws from, and contributes to, the community of which they are a valued part. This school, in particular, champions the individual; we encourage originality and initiative; we want to see creativity and critical thinking. Equally, we value community and participation, belonging and service to others.
We want them to be properly ready for life when they wander off from Senior School.
The wondering wandering of a parent
Turn now, dear wanderer, to one my favourite poems about parenthood. It is a beautiful, short piece of verse by Robin Robertson.
All parents know the feelings that come with checking on your sleeping child. Particularly when they are babies. You creep in and listen to their breathing. In the silence, you imagine the private worlds of their dreaming. Safe in their beds. Protected from all the possibilities that lie ahead of them.
Robertson’s poem is unashamedly sentimental – it tells us the gradual necessity of our children’s independence. They are meant to grow away from us. This is not an act of disobedience, of course – it is an act of self-possession. And the result of a job well done.
This slow and gentle unhinging of the parental heart is, of course, the whole point, indeed the aim of parenthood – and the endpoint of childhood. In the end, we want them to wander off like that. But not too soon; not too quickly; and not before they’re ready.
Love – in all its many worded forms – is what powers parenting; and it is love that powers schools too. We act in loco parentis. It is our job to help fill your children with confidence; to fire them up with love of learning, with the skills and aptitudes to lead happy and successful lives. As Yeats so memorably put it: “Education is not the filling of buckets but the lighting of fires”.
Fancy racing off like that?
Take a look, dear wanderer, at this aerial shot of the start of the Third Form Race at the end of their first week at Shrewsbury. I find it rather moving:
We can see a burst of colour; an explosion of forward-moving energy as they all set off together. Fancy racing off like that?
You might be able to spot a figure in red lumbering along on the left hand side. What a privilege it is to run alongside children for the five years of senior school; to be outrun by them – to see them find their stride.
This photo is not just a record; it is a metaphor. The sense of a journey begun. Yes, it’s a race, but most importantly it was something we all did together. Each child ran for themselves; but also for their house.
You can glimpse the crowd support on the side-lines. That’s the grown-ups – parents, family and staff. There will be challenging moments along the way. We work in partnership to help them; to find their balance when they wobble; to keep them moving.
The race is not ultimately about placings; it is about personal bests. It is a race with oneself.
And it is a wander, dear wanderer.
It is a wander.
Adapted from an address to Third Form parents and pupils, Shrewsbury School Chapel, September 2021