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It is one of the most iconic plays of the twentieth century and indeed of any century. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is described as a tragedy, but it is both a lament for things past and a clarion call to what matters. At one moment Biff cries out that he “just can’t grab hold of some kind of life”, both railing against his father’s and society’s notions of success and yet trapped to execute the means to that end. Biff is caught between what he would do and what he thinks he should do. The difference between the competing ideals is vast, terrifying and life defining. 

The past half term at school has been as intense as any I have known. Colleagues are working hard to normalise life for the children in abnormal circumstances, the end seemed in sight but for very good reasons the restrictions we live under have been extended. Public examination classes in Years 11 and 13 have been through an exacting period of work as everyone endeavours to be their best and colleagues produce Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs).  

The danger is the same one faced by Biff and Willy Loman in Miller’s work. What assumes importance and what occupies our thinking seems to be the things we can measure. It is understandable to a degree. We value what we can measure because what is of value cannot be measured. It is a real and pernicious danger especially in school. The metric flatters us into thinking that because we can graph it, track it over time, see the fluctuation in achievement or not, that we have something of value. It is not that this approach to what we do is not valued, of course it is. Tracking and developing performance is crucial and over the past four years we have seen a meteoric rise in attainment and achievement, all the better for the pupils. But what are we valuing? 

‘Walden’ is in the most Romantic traditions of the idealism of North American writing. Thoreau’s work has become a by-word for the dreamy. But it doesn’t make what he says less worthy of notice. “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation”, Thoreau is questioning where we find fulfilment, how is the authentic life to be grabbed? Miller is in many ways responding in 1949 to the challenge of the apparent collapse of the American Dream in the face of commercialisation of every aspect of life. Biff places his value not in fulfilling his heart’s desire but in filling his pockets with ‘stuff’.  

I had a moment on Monday to interview some children in the Prep about schools of the future. You will be able to read some of their thinking in the next issue of ‘the Gryphon’. But what was heartening was their insistence on value and care. On Wednesday I attended a virtual meeting of Headteachers from around the country. Conjures quite an image doesn’t it? Some of the findings of The Deloitte Millennial Survey were presented. It was affirming to see how many of the attributes (Deloitte called them skills) are thought necessary for success are already core to the work we do in our pupil profile. What was valued was integrity, compassion, the ability to bounce back and be resilient, to be emotionally honest and open, to have a global mindset and to be open to others.  

On Wednesday evening we bade farewell to our Upper Sixth, Year 13s. They were resplendent and in fine form. I am proud of each one of them. Each one formed by a variety of circumstances, each one ploughing their own course and forging ahead with their young lives. Each one grounded in values that matter, looking after each other, mindful of what is lasting and unimpressed by the transience of immediacy. They have had much to cope with but did so with stoicism. They are the counterpoint to Biff and Willy Loman. They are not the embodiment of Thoreau because they are keen to engage with the world not retreat from it. But in their advance in life, they will be to me models of authenticity. Some have spoken of this generation as the ‘forgotten’ generation. If that were to be true, there wouldn’t have been much to recollect anyway. I think they are wrong. The generation of pupils leaving our Sixth Form are the Founding Generation. They are the authors of their own destiny, they have it within them to define themselves not against others or the prevailing social norm or whim. They have it within their gift to create greatness in valuing all the things that cannot be measured and holding lightly the things that can. 

Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@EmbleyHead


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