I met a guy from New Hampshire last weekend in Frankfurt. Seems like a long way to go to meet a bloke from America, but in 1960 John Steinbeck went further. He set off in his converted campervan Rocinante to see America for himself. Steinbeck was ill and some say the trip was his attempt to see his country for one last time. Travelling thousands of miles, he met lots of Americans. His mission was to get under the skin of what it means to be one. Later, in ‘Lost Continent’, Bill Bryson would do the same. To be fair to Bryson, he does it with greater wit but both men share equal insight. Bryson is wistful about a lost America, he looks askance at the globalisation that coats the uniqueness of people and place with a homogeneous veneer. He bemoans his lost continent in understandable ways. In my observations with my colleague from New Hampshire, we considered how America is a country of smaller countries, the traditions and ‘culture’ of individual states being nuanced and different, federalism enshrines some of this difference in law. Steinbeck and Bryson were getting behind the veil of popularism that masks understanding of what the States really are.
Over the course of the conference in Germany, I met colleagues from as far away as Japan and as close to home as Weybridge. All of us have one common focus, we are all involved in boarding schools. Now, I have often mentioned that we exist to influence the world and to make it a better place. The means by which this is achieved is through shared understanding and mutual acceptance of our differences. Over the course of this week, the news has been pretty grim. In fact, that seems to be the theme of the news for as long as I can remember. What is to be done?
On Wednesday night I had dinner with the Sixth Form at our first Nightingale Lecture of the year; boarders and day students all together in the common family that is Embley. The tables were pretty grand, lavish decoration and much finery on show. These black-tie events have proven as popular for the dressing up as for the speakers, the food and the thoughtful recollections of individuals who have achieved greatness.
But I want to dwell for a moment on the company I kept at that dinner. As I sat with the students and as we milled around before dinner, a variety of topics and questions bubbled up. There had been a shooting incident in Germany, one student had celebrated Yom Kippur, another went on to explain the significance of the 12th of July as well as some consideration of the nature and meaning of the toast which Max would make at the end of the meal. We touched on the efficacy of chocolate puddings, Blade Runner as an example of the best of the sci-fi genre, the enduring legacy of the Audi Quattro and the resilience of Orla Kiely’s retro styling. We talked at length and with some animation about favourite global destinations and a couple of notable voices from one end of the table ribbing me about sport.
We did, at one-point wonder about what is going on in the world? There was so much energy and joy being shared around the table by such a diverse group not only in terms of taste and experience, but also of background and culture, why can’t we all get on? You may say the question is a naïve one, perhaps that it moves us to a simplistic approach to the complexity of human relations, I don’t know. I do know that after a long day at work, I sat down with them and was energised and enthused in a way that only their openness and authenticity can allow.
Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, a day of at-one-ment. Reconciling the error of our ways with the desire to make tomorrow better seems the noblest of causes and the better part of human nature. The capacity to be ourselves not in spite of but because of our desire to understand and know others as authentically themselves without show or pretence makes us truly human. In the midst of all of the conversations was a care for each other, an innocent willingness to see and understand difference and to be attracted to it not repelled by it. It is why we have so much hope for the future and the spectacular reason to advance and encourage greater cultural understanding the Embley way.
In the shared interactions, the shared experiences and in the lived understanding of what Shylock drew attention to: we are all fed by the same food, healed by the same means and cooled and warmed by the same winter and summer. Our shared experience is the reason that gives lie to the despairing; it is why we are not a ‘lost continent’.
Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@EmbleyHead)