It was the end of playtime and the children were quickly, quietly and happily heading back to the classrooms. The building with its stairs and corridors was full of life and a high level of energy and contentment.
I walked along with a group of boys just enjoying the company and the conversation. As we approached the classroom there was a sound of an adult voice, a sound of exasperation (with a touch of anger). It was a stand-off. Two seven-year-old boys were at the desk of the teacher. They looked ill at ease. The teacher clearly had had enough. “Very pleased to see you headmaster. Look at this.” He handed me the well-formed picture of a butterfly. It had a jagged scribble etched across it in black felt pen. He explained that at the end of break he had found the two boys in the classroom. They had returned from a music lesson and so had not been in the playground. He had also found the damaged painting. One of them was responsible. Neither would own up to the crime. The tension in the room was high and rising, fed by the condition of the two boys, the teacher and now the head.
It seemed right to remove the boys for the sake of all. We went to the library where it was quiet and ordered. The three of us sat down. Two troubled faces looked in my direction. The boys were called Arjun and Ben. Without any sense of judgement or anger I asked them politely whether either of them had defaced the painting. Both looked blank and ill at ease. “Sometimes if you just sit quietly and keep your heart open and your mind quiet the truth just appears,” I said. “Let’s just stay silent for a while.”
The second ticked by and the boys followed the instruction.
From deep within himself Arjun suddenly spoke. “Well sir it was not me who scribbled on the butterfly but Ben is my friend and I will say it was me to make things better. I will take the blame.” Ben immediately burst into tears and said, “It was me. I’m sorry.”
I looked across at Arjun, his face was bright and open. His innocence was remarkable and his compassion without limit.
As you all know builders are always on time, complete the work with efficiency and precision and perform in a bright and ordered manner.
It was early November and the extensive work of the Summer, a new classroom block, had edged deep into the Autumn. The term had started with the heat and noise of drills and was now suffering from incomplete and wet areas of concrete.
That morning the debris of the works had blocked the drain at the entrance to the school and a puddle roughly the size and shape of the Caspian Sea had formed across the school gateway. It was a tradition that I stood in that gateway and greeted the children as they arrived at school. Far better to be greeted by the heart and hands of a human being than a wall or a door.
My clothes were already wet from the journey to school and my Chelsea Boots (a hangover from the 60’s) squelched nicely as I walked to the entrance.
I found a spot in the shallow end and with eyes open but mind closed began to greet the children. The wet did not seem to affect them and they found my bedraggled state and the sheer size of the new water feature a delight.
For my part the ills of the world travelled the mind, cold feet, incomplete school, wet day, accursed builders.
“Full many a glorious morning have I seen”.
Lifting my head slightly I noticed a six year old girl standing at the opposite edge of the pond. She was staring into and at the water. Her face was calm but full of light and life. Her hair was soaked.
“Sir,” she said, quietly. “Have you noticed the circles and points in the water?”
I had to admit I had not. (The mind being still full of builders.)
Obediently I followed her gaze and watched with her as the rain drops produced exquisite points in the water that expanded into beautifully formed circles that came to perfection and then disappeared.
“Sir, don’t you think that God is the best person at Geometry in the world?”
It was the pinnacle of my career. Chairman of the Independent Schools Association. Voted in by 300 hundred colleagues, picture in the paper and an endless but enjoyable round of conferences from St Andrews to Torquay.
In my opening speech to the association and the world somewhat arrogantly I declared that I had nothing to offer but the need to re-sound the nobility of the teacher. (True but a little pompous!) The year unfolded and at times I felt happy and at ease and then at other times thought ‘what the hell I am doing here?’ as I clutched a sherry and examined the wallpaper at some barren function and tried to avoid conversation.
On the way back from one conference I stopped off to see my uncle Eric. He is from my birthplace, Chesterfield, and was very much my mentor when I was a young boy. He knew how to fish and took me to cricket matches. West Indies v Derbyshire and Sobers at the crease. Real education.
After a cup of tea he inquired as to whether I was still in that London. (If you live in Chesterfield you always refer to ‘that London’, some distant, dirty and unknown place.) He also asked if I was still headmastering. “Yes Eric, actually I’m Chairman of I.S.A. this year.” A hint of pride in the voice flecks of dust flicked from the lapel of my pin-stripe. “What’s that entail?” said Eric. “Well,” I started searching for a precise response, “you go to a lot of conferences, chair meetings, meet politicians, sort out and discuss educational issues.” My voice tailed off. “Has thou nowt better to do wi’ thee time?” said Eric, without a hint of criticism. It was an open question.
It was as if I had to look into my heart and re-discover why I came into teaching. The ego was deflated, and I sat in a still but open state.
Seek no honours.
You are only a teacher, albeit a head teacher when you stand in front of a child.