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I never liked the Beatles. OK a contentious way to begin my piece and bound to upset the readership, but such is taste or my lack of it depending on your point of view. No doubt the failing, if failing there be, is on my part. My catastrophic failure to understand or appreciate the genre, movement, lyrics, place in popular culture and significance in the canon may be problematic, but I do recognise a moment of connection between something John Lennon wrote and the point at hand.

The concept of the Rota Fortunae is not unique to the western canon but probably gains some prominence after Boethius’ references in his Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius is the last of the classical era and the cross over to early medieval scholasticism later influencing Renaissance thought.

Through the Middle Ages, Fortunae is portrayed as a lady holding a wheel upon which characters are depicted in various states of contentment, or not. On long summer evenings studying it, I did happen to think of the irony of my student fate. The wheel depicts four stages with four human figures. In the first the figure is rising and it is usually labelled ‘I will reign’, the second, ‘I rein’, the third ‘I have reigned’ and the last ‘I have no kingdom’. The wheel sets out two notions: that Fortune is fickle and the wheel turns with little influence from the individuals on the circumference.

In an age influenced by the capricious gods of Greek drama, it was entirely consistent that lives were determined by forces beyond an individual’s control. In King Lear, Gloucester echoes the sentiment, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, they kill us for their sport.” The wheel does explain the vagaries of life to a mind that looks for patterns or reasons and causal connections. It presents an explanation for the problem of evil and in particular why bad things happen to good people; Fortune is not smiling on you. (I am not suggesting this explanation is correct or acceptable.)

The second is more to be inferred; life has its ups and downs, don’t get too hung up on either because everything changes. This view is more benign and forgiving. It is also probably not what was intended and certainly not how Boethius saw it. In our context the public examination season is about to begin. It is a period of intense preparation. Colleagues and students have been in at various stages over Easter revising, the focus of lessons is on exam papers and mark schemes. Over the past few days I have had a number of students pop in for a chat, some are keen and excited to get on with exams, others wishing the whole process was over, some worried that they will not perform and some who have suddenly had that moment of awakening that spurs them into action – better late than never. But for all of this they are moments in transition. This too will pass.

Please don’t think that I am playing down the significance of the season. The exams are important, success and doing well is important, but fundamentally they are only a passing moment in a life that will carry on after and flourish. It will be no time at all before the media picks up on the percentage of A*s and 9s, university entrance protocols and the comparison with the old GCSEs.

My concern is the impact cheap media hype has on children and the worry and anxiety that it can bring with suggestions that from this moment in time the rest of your life will be a success or failure. The binary nature of this thinking is at odds with the reality that life continues, the wheel turns and new opportunities present themselves. Such was the message in the polar explorer Alex Hibbert’s address to the Sixth Form at our Summer Nightingale Lecture. Every speaker has returned to this chorus and our industry career evenings have echoed the theme.

The Rota Fortunae may be consigned to the gates of academe for study, the notion old but not redundant, because there is a third notion to take from it. Uncertainty is part of life, all things change and we are all in transition, but those most affected are those on the circumference. The closer one is to the centre, the less affect the continued change has. 

This is not to advocate passivity, but an authenticity that I am my own person and this is something that we work hard to imbue in the children. They are the authors of their own narrative, informed and inspired by school, home and family, by friends and personal dreams and ambition. Each day is an opportunity to liberate oneself by setting down the shackles of what convention demands and what fashionable thinking expects. We understand and celebrate the approach coined by Arthur Ashe that encourages us to start where we are, do what we can and use what we have. Then can we sit contentedly and watch the wheels go round and round.

“In life, the idea is to be happy. So, I believe in calm, simple, low-profile life. You live simple, you train hard and live an honest life. Then you are free.” Eliud Kipchoge, 2019 London Marathon winner


Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@HeadmasterHCS)

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