Does anything really matter?

It was a rainy morning in the Spring of 1984. Raindrops slid lazily down the panes of the windows in the prefab classroom of my primary school. The baby thrush which we had adopted some weeks earlier flew around the classroom, cheerfully relieving itself on any available surface (including our books, desks and heads).  A smell of chalk, and curdling milk pervaded the air. Why did the milk monitors always leave the little bottles with their foil tops right next to the hot water pipes? 

On this particular morning, we were doing maths. We did not have textbooks and there were no interactive televisions, digital projectors or tablets. Instead, we worked through handwritten laminated cards. They were numbered, colour-coded and seemingly endless. I was not one of life’s natural mathematicians and at the age of seven, my frustration with the subject was already self-evident. On that particular morning, I had not made sufficient progress or, seemingly, worked with sufficient enthusiasm. As I went up to Mrs Smith’s desk to collect the latest card, she looked disapprovingly at me and said, ‘Why are you still on card 46? John is already working his way through card 59?’ Indeed, John, the very picture of perfection, was quietly working his way through some complex calculation. For all I know, John is now regius professor of mathematics at Oxford University. 

I remember tears of indignation pricking my eyes. I looked at Mrs Smith and shrugged my shoulders before storming off back to my desk and spending the rest of the morning in something of a sulk. I was silently furious and over thirty five years later, the memory of that feeling is really vivid. Nine months previously, my father had died suddenly. I had changed schools, moved a hundred miles away and, well, life had been turned upside down. Nothing much seemed to matter – definitely not maths! I sat at my little desk feeling embarrassed, ashamed and angry to have had my ‘lack of progress’ highlighted in front of my class. Around the same time, concerns were raised about my writing. Like many left-handed people, I did not hold my pen correctly and  I routinely reversed letters. In the eighties, there was still something of a stigma attached to having an identifiable learning need. In my school, it meant the threat of being sent to see Mrs Fisher who resided in a rusty old caravan parked in some wasteland behind the school. The school could not have made one feel more awkward if it had actively sought to do so. 

This moment of despair and indifference passed and I enjoyed school in most respects. When I was training to teach, I remember a Year 8 boy telling me with an air of defiance that he did not care whether or not he completed the assignment that I was urging him to focus upon. His father was up in court the following morning and he was anxious that he would be sent to prison yet again. Viewed logically, he had a point. His life was falling apart and yet I was urging him to complete a piece of work on the Magna Carta. Jake had more pressing concerns such as the need to console his Mum and look after his baby sister. King John seemed wholly irrelevant. 

It is reasonable enough for young people to reflect upon whether or not the expectations articulated by a school community matter. Viewed alongside deforestation, global pandemics and climate change, the length of one’s hair or the use of a mobile phone in or around a school campus do not seem especially important. Similarly, for the seven year old me, grief seemed to make a mockery of the expectations of my teacher. In hindsight though, I think she was right to hold me to account. Perhaps the fabric of a normal childhood is dependent upon parents and teachers working together to ensure that expectations and boundaries are maintained – after all my despondency and nihilism were not contributing to my well being. 

High expectations are not antithetical to compassion and understanding. Whilst my teacher might have handled the situation better, a little bit of the adult me is grateful that I was challenged. These days, we would have acted with much greater sensitivity. Her expectation was reasonable but the manner with which it was communicated felt upsetting. 

All of our children have experienced disruption during the last fourteen months. Much of this time has been spent entirely free from the expectations of living as part of a school community and this creates a challenge when we return to pick up the threads. 

Online learning and working from home are essentially individualistic and rather lonely scenarios. At the weekend, I listened as my brother-in-law told me that his company has now become a ‘working from home’ outfit. Whilst he will not miss the commute, he will definitely miss the social aspect of being part of a community. It is a bit dismal that the kitchen table has now become his place of work. It is great for the company in terms of saving money but perhaps not so good for long term mental health. This atomisation of society is an aspect of the pandemic that I feel we must resist at all costs. 

We are better and stronger when we are members of communities not least because we are also valued and loved. We are essentially social beings. Alone, we are prone to endless introspection and freedom often means absence from structure, expectations and responsibilities.  Of course, communities are colourful, exciting and problematic but being part of something bigger than ourselves serves to give our lives meaning. Individually, a school’s expectations can appear irksome. Collectively, they serve to provide a rhythm and structure within which privileges are balanced with responsibilities. Most importantly, we are invited to be considerate of others. 

The last year has taken a lot and to be part of a community so joyously bursting back into life is tremendously exciting. What is abundantly apparent to me now, is that everything really does matter and that when life is tough or there has been a period of intense change, familiar routines and reasonable expectations help provide a framework that has a value beyond the particular.  

Mr Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School