The Importance of Remembering

Early on Monday morning, my 5-year-old daughter announced proudly that “today” she would have to stand in silence for 2 minutes. Of course, it was Remembrance Day, and my heart skipped a beat at the thought that my little girl, in her own little way, recognised that this was a special day and an important occasion. It got me thinking about the social and communal dimension of remembering important events and made me reflect on why we choose to do this on a global and individual level.

With Remembrance Day, the answer is easy – there is so much to be grateful for, recognised without reservation and with a huge collection of stories and poems that seek to express our gratitude. Arguably, this is the only day in each calendar year that brings the country together in communal silence, private grief and renewed hope. No matter where you are, the Last Post is played by that lone trumpet, the same words of Laurence Binyon are spoken. The weather often conspires too and I find myself thinking about how important the temporary discomfort of the cold or the rain or the wind (or all of the above!) is in contrast to the size of the sacrifice of those whom we are remembering.

There was, however, another reason why this weekend was a special one for remembering: November 9th 2019 marked 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. For me, this event exists as an authentic memory somewhere in the recesses of my childhood; watching the events unfold on the TV in my grandparents’ flat, wondering what all the fuss was about. Little did I know that what I was witnessing was the end of an era in modern history.

Recently, the Headmaster wrote about his visit to Ground Zero and reflected on the impact that 9/11 had and continues to have on him and on others. Unlike the fall of the Berlin Wall, the immediate significance of that day was not lost on me. It felt like a raw red line, a clear demarcation between the past and the future, had been drawn, with no way back.

Teaching is a profession which contradicts itself by providing us with an illusion of timelessness and permanent youth whilst also confronting us with the reality of time slipping by with each passing generation. Not long into my career, I came across pupils who were born well after 9/11. A date that had been a defining point for me in the story of our present had become this next generation’s past. I realised that these children would never know what it felt like to watch the towers collapse like a stack of dominoes in front of their eyes, aware that those buildings were filled with people whose lives were extinguished in that very moment. And yet, through the teaching of history, through the stories that their parents will tell, through the narrative of politicians and ongoing conflicts, they will continue to “remember” this event.

There are many other significant events of my youth that I could name and pinpoint where I was and what I was doing when they happened – the end of the apartheid and the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as South Africa’ first black president, the day bombs fell on my place of birth, the day the UK decided to leave the EU.

I am not unique in having a collection of such memories and over the course of a lifetime we will all build up our store of events that affect us personally as well as within the context of the society that we live in. Often in such instances, we are observers, powerless in the moment but with unlimited opportunities to ensure that as much good can come out of our ability to react and actively remember.

Education and in particular schools play an important role in framing the act of remembering and the choice of what pupils “remember”. This is a significant responsibility and one closely tied to the ethos of the community the school creates.

The challenge of working with young people is that they have seldom lived through the events that they are communally remembering. The quality of the stories, the passion of the storytellers, the beauty and poignancy of our acts of remembrance, the time that we take to explain why remembering is important, all inform the quality of the internalised memory. Our pupils will carry these artificial memories with them and create a schema from which to evaluate people, situations and the world around them; they will refer to them, often without conscious thought, to make decisions and value judgements within their own lives.

Furthermore, as is the natural order of things, our children will be the storytellers one day; they will own our communal memories and their meaning. We owe it to those that they tell to not undersell the importance of the memories we share today.