Three years ago I arrived at Embley. I remember it vividly. Over the first few weeks as I settled in, the Bursar decided that the Head’s Study needed a freshen-up. I inherited a room from a line of notables most of whom enjoyed a pipe, you might imagine the tincture of the place. A coat of paint and some furniture removed, the bureau was transformed into a brighter and more welcoming space.
Very kindly one of the team decorated the wall with a beautiful watercolour of Embley’s Manor House. In time, and after we had the first whole school photo taken, I replaced the picture of the house with the photograph. Perhaps a little hurt, my colleague asked why I had taken the painting of the school down. This you see is my point, I had removed the picture of the building in favour of the picture of the school.
I have told this story from time to time but at no time has it ever been more appropriate. The building is not the school.
Last Friday, Embley’s estate fell silent, it was an eerie return home I made that evening having seen off staff and students with the inevitable uncertainty of when we would all return. This is unprecedented, there have been snow days when the children leave early but we know that in a few days the slushing sound of return echoes across the south lawn. This is different.
The temptation is to dwell on difference and to wrap the difficulty of difference around us and draw cold comfort from it. The times are difficult indeed, but there are also opportunities in this difficulty which are not too hard to find. I shouldn’t want you reader to think I am making little of any of this, I am not. But neither am I daunted or dismayed.
In every circumstance, we have opportunity. The first message I gave to the staff three years ago and to my first Assembly with the children was that we are the authors of our own story – it will be what we make it, or we can allow fate to write it in our stead.
Over the past week we have been authoring a variety of new stories, new chapters that as 2020 blinked into consciousness on New Year’s Day we would never have imagined. But then isn’t this what life is – a series of opportunities you never thought you would have knitted together by circumstance and our desire to do something with them?
When we developed our Digital Strategy, I didn’t think it would be serving this present need. The carefully curated content was designed to extend children and connect home with classrooms, little did anyone realise how significant it would become. When we pressed ahead with iPads and digital learning it was to extend and develop thinking and creativity, I hadn’t reckoned on present circumstance.
Now we are teaching and learning remotely, video conferencing and seeing children take ownership: learning has become even more personalised. Colleagues are posting and hosting, receiving feedback and all the commerce of the classroom shared with parents in the most immediate of experiences.
This is tough, it is not the same as having children in front of you and yes it does place a burden, but a burden on us all. Those at home juggling working from home with looking after children’s learning, the concerns for the health of our loved ones, especially those who are older and more vulnerable. There is the worry for when this will all be over, taken together with the expectation of running ordinary life in extra ordinary circumstances.
This places a burden on us all, but in so doing it also releases a burden. There is only so much we can do, in extra ordinary times we are making extra ordinary decisions and doing extra ordinary things. It is fair, reasonable and understandable to take a moment to be gentle with ourselves and with each other. The burden is somewhat lightened in being shared.
This is a moment where the playing field has levelled. Our ultimate concerns are not with things and stuff; what burned bright as important and critical three weeks ago is now a paler hue. Our priorities are sharpened and what matters crystallised. Jamie is cooking with odds and sods, we are making do and mending, there is a collective delight at shared exercise routines, and we will all no doubt look back when this is over and enjoy the fact that our own Mr Leathem exercised live in our front rooms and lounges. Tutors connecting with tutees and the blurring of parents, pedagogues and practice in shared purpose.
My optimism is not the rosy fingered false dawn of Homer’s heroic epic. My optimism is more modest, humbled on the individual acts of kindness of which there are legion. Their remarkable profundity unremarked and under-reported inspires courage and fosters belonging, inclusion and the fortitude that comes with knowing we are in this together.
In 1352 Giovanni Boccaccio finished his only work of note, The Decameron. It frames one hundred stories told by a group of young people in medieval self-isolation away from the city state of Florence. The stories themselves are less important than a message that infuses all of them. An ingenuity, good humoured and playful, exercises itself among a cast of characters making the best of a bad lot. They are ‘happy’, where happiness is not an enjoyment of conditions or circumstance, but an attitude of mind that shares common values.
We are separated by centuries from Boccaccio, we are separated by distance from each other and while separated by decree from buildings, but all the while this is the case we remain at school because the building is not The School.
Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@EmbleyHead)