Connections over relationships

Good afternoon. The final day of Term 2 is always a good occasion – we have a holiday to look forward to, the days are getting longer, summer is coming and there is much to reflect on that is positive in terms of enjoyment and achievement over the past 9 weeks.

One phrase I have heard repeated recently is that ‘teaching is all about relationships’. It’s a decent soundbite, but an over-simplification. Teaching is not all about anything. Very little of any substance or value is all about one thing, and even if you believed this was true, you should not be able to reduce the complexities of human interaction into one simple stock phrase. Generally, when you tug at things, you will find the whole world attached to them.

A friend of mine wrote an article last year trying to make this relationship point, and he used the example of Claudio Ranieri and his Leicester City team, winning the Premier League against all odds in 2016. His point was that the strength of relationships between player and coach allowed the team to perform at a far higher level than should have been possible. Leicester City became greater than the sum of its parts due to strong relationships.

The next season, and a few months after he penned that article, Leicester – with the same players and manager – was out of title contention, battling relegation instead, and Ranieri was sacked amidst rumours of a player revolt. It seemed that the relationships were great when the going was good and turned sour when the results dipped.

One of the reasons I think it’s simplistic to talk of relationships being key is that it is easy to confuse easy acquaintance for genuine relationships – when things turn tough, does your relationship with an individual get stronger, or does it fade into the background? When you need help, who are your rocks, and who is like sand disappearing through your fingers?

I am interested in connections – connections made on multiple levels; connections made through deep, life-affirming, fundamental human experiences. We have a relationship of sorts with everyone we interact with, but we don’t necessarily make connections. E M Forster wrote in Chapter 22 of the 1910 novel Howard’s End, the following two words: Only Connect.

These two words are part of a longer quote, but it is the phrase Only Connect that is often quoted. It is connection to people that we must continue to work on, and that includes people to whom we have little natural affinity. George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier that ‘the main problem with the working classes is that they smell’, and though he clearly felt a sense of revulsion when confronted with the miners of northern Britain in the 1930s, he also felt a sense of nobility in their willingness to graft against oppressive conditions both at work and in the home. He overcome his natural lack of connection with these people. You too will find people that are tough to connect with on occasions, but we all must make the effort to do so. It is far harder to display genuine care for those people you do not connect with.

16 days ago, a tower block burned down in West London. The Grenfell Tower was an oasis of poverty in a desert of wealth. The area of West London, in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, is one of the most affluent parts, in one of the most expensive cities in the world. The Grenfell Tower was an ugly eyesore, completed in 1974 and built high into the sky like a gangrenous finger, designed to house large numbers of what remained throughout its existence some of society’s poorest people. There were 227 bedrooms in this single tower block, and the death toll from the fire currently stands at 80. Due to the ferocity of the fire and the extent of the destruction, it is unlikely the final number will be known until 2018.

The Grenfell tower stands right on the edge of the patch where my brother works as an officer in the Metropolitan police, and perhaps it is for this reason that I feel a sense of connection to the residents of the Grenfell Tower, even though I didn’t know any of them personally and hence had no relationship with anyone. A compassion for people is an essential part of basic human decency, and it should run deeper than a cursory sadness which is felt for a second and then lost.

Stefan Zweig expressed this perfectly, in his novel Beware of Pity, and he said:

There are two kinds of pity. One, the weak minded, sentimental sort, is really just the heart’s impatience to rid itself as quickly as possible of the painful experience of being moved by another person’s suffering. It is not a case of real sympathy, of feeling with the sufferer, but a way of defending yourself against someone else’s pain. The other kind, the only one that counts, is unsentimental but creative. It knows its own mind, and is determined to stand by the sufferer, patiently suffering too, to the last of its strength and even beyond.

On a more positive note, it is often the case that out of great tragedy comes examples of fortitude, generosity and the indomitable human spirit. One simple example was that of Rory Walsh, aged 18, who lived in a house opposite the Tower, and was due to sit the equivalent of his Year 12 English examination the next day. He worked from 2am until 8am that morning at the Maxilla Social Club, helping to organise donations and with the re-housing of newly homeless people, before heading off to sit his examination at 9am.

This is in stark contrast to the involvement of certain people employed by news channels, who took to helicopters to circle the building, capturing pictures for a gawping public. For people in the burning tower, to think you might be about to be rescued and instead to face a dawning realisation that you were merely being filmed – to move from hope to despair – is unimaginable. For those people in the helicopters, to be able to detach oneself from intense human suffering, and not only not to assist, but to fan the flames with whirring blades and to offer a semblance of hope only to dash it, is something those people need to live with.

The truth is that we can never know how we will react in a purely hypothetical circumstance until that circumstance is made real. Character reveals itself in moments like these, and I would like to think we would all do the right thing, even if it happens to inconvenience us. It is important to spend time cultivating relationships, but also developing deep connections with people, day in day out, such that your desire to help and do the right thing when need demands is natural and never forced. Maybe if Ranieri’s connection to his players had gone deeper, they would have battled through the tough times together.

But, to quote Helen Keller: although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of suffering. Suffering is inevitable at certain points – I see it in the eyes of those I teach every day – but it is through a strong and improving sense of community that we will overcome. I am a great believer in the power of a strong, respectful and reinforcing community – it is one of the reasons I loved the School musical Oliver! last week. Quite apart from the quality of the production – it was the community – the music, the acting, the set design; the Prep and the Secondary, the boys and their teachers, the audience and the players. It was a coming together of people to produce a genuine community activity.

This is part of the reason I tend to favour whole class teaching and communal learning. I favour all boys following a broadly common curriculum. Whenever I hear of differentiated instruction, personal learning and modifications to curriculum, I think we lose out on that powerful sense of community, and though necessary at times, in its worst form it can lead to fracturing, fragmentation and incoherence in the curriculum and can even promote a sense of selfishness and entitlement. We are all individuals, but we operate better as part of a wider and powerful community.

E M Forster’s full quote is this: Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.

This College is your and my community. It should not be fractured and fragmented. This College is what connects all of us. We can deepen those connections by what we say and what we do and the care we take for our fellow (Princes) men.

I wish you happy and restful holidays, and a productive and purposeful Term 3 when we return. I’ll finish with the words of President John F Kennedy, who understood better than most the need to unite people:

 In his 1961 address to the Canadian parliament, he uttered perhaps my favourite Kennedy quote: “Geography has made us neighbours. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies. Those whom nature hath so joined together, let no man put asunder. What unites us is far greater than what divides us.