Growing up “in context”

Just before I embarked upon my GCSE study leave, I took part in what was then a common tradition of having a special notebook signed by friends and teachers. Mrs Van Der Zee, my inspirational, smooth-voiced, English teacher asked me to pick a number from 1 to 10. I dutifully did and in return she wrote: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent”

There was no explanation, no reference to any individual, no demand that I remember it or live by it, no challenge to consider it or explain it.

And yet, here I am, 20 years later, able to recall the curve of her capitals, the thoughtfulness of her gesture. I often thought about whether she actually did transcribe the quote to match with the number selected, or whether she picked the quotes based on the pupil in front of her. She never did show me her whole list but I am certain that, no matter which number she chose, it would have had the same timeless message that echoed and travelled to some future version of ourselves.

To be honest, at the time, as a well-seasoned teenager, I did feel somewhat slighted by this quote. I felt it had punitive overtones – I thought it was saying, “when you stop being a teenager you’ll realise that you have spent the last 6 or 7 years being unbelievably selfish and self-absorbed”; certainly the message that my parents would have upheld at the time!

Perhaps though, there was an element of truth to my assumption about the message. After all, these words are the opening lines of John Donne’s poem by the same name, whose singular and timeless thrust is to highlight the interconnectedness of human beings, the necessity to consider how what we do has an impact on others, to inspire in the reader a sense of collective as well as individual responsibility in life. Written almost 400 years ago, it still has an incredibly relevant ring to the political and social issues of today.

English poet, John Donne

In growing up, we all live within the context of our historical age, location, family circumstances, political situation, school, street, friendship group. Each of our own stories is unique, and to each of us, the only story we truly know. Perhaps this is the sense from which Donne’s idea of an island stems. We know and can retell our own stories in forensic detail; our islands have definition and form, we know the vegetation that grows there, we know the sunniest spot, we know the areas to avoid. Other people, other islands, from where we are standing are but blurry outlines lacking definition and of which we have little true understanding. And yet, in a metaphorical sense, the same sun shines on them, the same rain falls, these islands possess the same foundations, the same good conditions help it to thrive, the same perils are faced by all. 

At Rossall, we understand that context is important. The young person who joins us is a whole individual – not just their academic potential, not just their musical or sporting talent, not just their country of birth, not just their mother tongue, not just their family or their primary school. Importantly we work to engender this sense of understanding of the context of others. As a teacher, the fact that I arrived in England at the age of 9 with not a single word of the English language under my belt, helps me to appreciate the challenge that our EAL pupils face; the importance of a smile and the richness of non-verbal communication. The fact that I struggled academically whilst studying part of my Mathematics degree in France, gives me a real sense of how demotivating the prospect of endless failure can be. My challenges make me a better teacher because I know that they are not unique to me.

For our pupils, we want to engender the same sense of awareness of the invisible lives (and islands) of others. Our PSHE programme, our Human Universe course, the way we resolve issues and conflict, all work to help our young people to appreciate that the world that is so personal, so well known to them, is a gift, not only because our unique story makes us feel special but more importantly because, if we choose to, it helps us to begin to understand the context of others and their actions.

At a time of divisiveness in our society, our identification and vilification of “the other”, it is important that as a school and as a community we stand up for the idea that the better we learn to understand each other the better the outcomes for us all.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent
A part of the main.
If a clod washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

John Donne