RATCLIFFE EXHIBITION DAY: Summer 2016
I was asked to give out prizes this year, and this is the text of the speech I gave. I also had projections and the accompanying images give an idea of these though they were also animated.
I want to congratulate all those who won prizes today- and also, as Fr President observed this morning, those who did not- but who clearly have been working very hard. And Anna- I don’t want to sound like Simon Cowell but this afternoon, you have made that Sondheim song entirely your own. Congratulations one and all!
Now, I want to talk about change.
We often find it hard to adjust to demands for change. But we are all as any mathematician, – or indeed as Heraclitus or Pocahontas might have said, in a state of flux. We cannot step in the same river twice. You know the song, “Once more round the river bend” – frankly, Disney says it just as well as the ancient greeks.
The demand OF constant change is uncertainty. Check out the Maths which is appearing on the screen to my right! Maths might help us understand what is happening but it is often experiences from the past that can help negotiate this uncertainty.
So, I hope you will indulge me, if I talk about an event when I was a boy here at Ratcliffe. When I was doing the Oxbridge exams and in the same week a production of Merchant of Venice, and I was caught shouting at the cricket pavilion. This was not an architectural statement. Rather, a pointless and a slightly loud display of fury and the then headmaster, Fr Anthony Baxter, took me into his office and suggested I should accept as providential things that I could not control. (Incidentally, I cannot quite control the projection of the maths – those of you who have just finished the Maths A level will agree that maths happens at its own pace. We must be patient.)
Fr Baxter urged me to follow the example of Rosmini, the man who imagined setting up this school in the first place. Antonio Rosmini was really a tremendous writer who incidentally had irritated Vatican bigwigs and had made powerful enemies. but it was the march of history that was his chief adversary. A few years before his death, he was due to be created Cardinal secretary of state by Pius IX but even as he received a set of buttons specially embossed with his family coat of arms, The pope went into exile and Rosmini’s preferment went up in smoke. Now this is the point: and I checked it yesterday with Fr Ted but neither he nor I could remember the exact words of the account, so here is the gist, in Fr Ted’s words, Rosmini took a little time time getting his head round it and then he moved on – and it is that time for pause that is important. So is the fact that he accepted the reality of the new situation. Over the next few years, it simply got worse, by the way, and his his life’s work, his writings were condemned, yet at the end of his life he says, “Be still, adore and rejoice”.
a cloud of suspicion hovered over Rosmini’s work until Vatican II. Today, He is accorded the respect he is due, and even quoted in Papal encyclicals. But it took a century, at least, for his ideas to be accepted. It takes time. Change takes time. A phrase we will get very familiar with in “post referendum”.
So, I was told to accept things that did not go to order. “Be still, adore and rejoice!” Well, I was far from rejoicing, and, by the evening, I was seething. I explained this to another one of the Rosminian priests, a man called Fr Basil, who made me a cup of tea, listened very politely and then gave me a book with a bookmark on which he had hastily inscribed the words “Ephesians 4.26”. I looked it up the following morning: “Never let the sun go down on your wrath.” So, that was a bit late! Here were two principles- to accept providence and curb anger. Let’s put that another way- to work with reality and to do it with kindness.
Nurture your own talents because that is what you will be good at. Think of Rosmini- his writings: two of his books were placed on the INDEX, the list of books no good Catholic should read, (these books- his life’s work) were forbidden and yet he never stopped writing. We are not meant to bury our talents but to develop and use them – as we heard in Church this morning St Paul says we must fight the good fight, or as I recall the wonderful Doc Orton used to point out- and some of you received prizes today in his name – Winston Churchill simply told the country during the dark days of world war 2 to “keep soldiering on” (or words to that effect).
There is a danger to determination, of course. Some years ago, I was directing Hamlet and had this insane idea that fish should play a major part. I would like to think I was inspired by the old baldicchino in the church here which was covered in fish- But we did a deal with a salmon farm and every night, the stage manager’s last job was to defrost a fish, put it in a bucket of cold water, for the following day. It all came from the line, “you are a fishmonger” (act II, sc 2) which had a slightly different meaning for Shakespeare. Anyway, the fish made its first appearance when Hamlet was feigning madness, and he produced the fish and slapped it around Polonius’ head; he dissected the fish in the big “To be or not to be” speech and then later the fish was brought on stage on a dog-lead by the mad Ophelia. We won’t do anything new unless we are prepared to take a risk. But being prepared is a key part of the process!
Sadly, one day the stage manager forgot to defrost the fish so it was hastily done with a kettle of boiling water about 10 minutes before it was due onstage. and that meant that the fish was not so much defrosted as cooked, and it fell to pieces, bits of fish here and bits of fish there. The place stank of fish and I had to spend much of our profits paying for the theatre to be professionally cleaned. Sometimes, we take unnecessary risks – just as fish seemed a great idea before it was cooked and scattered around on stage, so it’s always good to pause before a risky decision.
In other words, our understanding of providence needs to be active rather than passive. We must do our best at everything- Providence is no excuse for indolence- we must work at our future; we must be prepared, we should throw our hearts into it (some of you are looking a bit sleepy: I nevertheless want you to throw your hearts into life) whatever you do and however many hearts you may have! I think there are no “Time Lords” here, but do you know that a worm has more than one heart? (It has five) and can anyone tell me how many hearts a cockroach has (This is one of those useless bits of information that I promise you will remain with you for the rest of your life!) It has 13 hearts! That is why it is such a survivor I suppose. You should be as cunning, as determined and as resilient as a cockroach!
Exams are one way we can test the value of what we have learnt, but we also test our ideas every day simply by discussing them with our friends. Believe me, I would rather hear a friend tell me that I have a really loopy idea before I act on it. That is real kindness. And, frankly, it was fairly kind back then to tell me to stop screaming at the cricket pavilion.
Let’s go back to Rosmini for a moment, because even at the end of his life, Rosmini is talking about action- rejoice is something that we have to do fairly actively. We could bring Rosmini’s words into everyday usage- “stop, be kind and be creative.” Indeed, Providence without kindness is simply fatalism.
Kindness is something I remember about Ratcliffe. and I know that Mr Lloyd today sees kindness as a great feature of this school and a great tool for communication. “Be still, adore and rejoice”
To be still is very important. I worked for a director of an animated film who thought we should all work in silence. He went around the studio unplugging people’s radios. I thought he was wrong then. I think he is right now.
Stillness is something that can be encouraged in school, but the place where it is also needed is back at home. You cannot listen unless you are silent, and – you know I have been setting up an educational faculty in a University in Moscow, and I do occasional lectures, in English. My Russian is execrable, so they started to provide me with a translator and then gave up. These days I just vigorously wave my arms around – but I noticed that when students of any age put up their hands, they tend to stop listening. They are only thinking of what they plan to say. The same is true in politics. I was at a referendum debate a few weeks’ ago and three fairly robust councillors in a row, all asked exactly the same question. They also happened to be in three different parties. Nice to know they were thinking the same thing, but interesting that they were not listening to one another.
We need to change that. We need to listen to each other much more.
Rejoicing or happiness is again difficult, particularly in times of crisis, and we need to practice it a lot for it to be natural. This is about positive thinking and creativity but it is also about discipline and about confidence. We need to keep alive a spirit of optimism and hope, in small things and in big. We do not need to rejoice just about the past- we should enter the future in that self-same spirit of optimism.
The role of parents at home is vital to the well-being of a school like Ratcliffe. we expect there to be Inspiration and discipline at school, but we also need it at home – there may even be a place for distraction, but in my experience, children are perfectly good at doing that themselves, beginning with Minecraft, then warcraft and even game of thrones or call of duty. We need to be ever encouraging, always rejoicing in what children are learning. The more they learn, quite frankly the more we learn too, and that is no bad thing.
For the last few years I have been an academic guardian, looking after children, often from other countries while they plough ahead with their education in the UK. Sometimes they make mistakes, and I think it is my job to try to keep them focused on the goal despite these mistakes. Frankly, if English is not your native language, it is very easy to get confused. I want to tell you about –let’s call him George- who is doing an exam this evening so even as I am speaking, I am slightly on tenterhooks. He badly wanted to study Astronomy for GCSE. The school said this was impossible, that his timetable would not work, that the subject was only available to a very small select number. George really wanted to do it, his parents said, and so I spoke to the housemaster and the director of studies on his behalf. After negotiations which might well put Mr Junker to shame, George got his way. However, it soon became clear that there had been a misunderstanding.
Fuelled by Harry Potter, George’s interest, it turned out, was rather more in Astrology than in Astronomy, and quite frankly, he would have been better off with a subscription to the Daily Mail. Still, to his credit, and with a lot of encouragement, he has persevered. That means, we have spent a lot of time discussing astronomy: and this morning, just after I got out of Church, he rang me for a last minute revision test- so as I speak to you, I am also still thinking of the dwarf planet Pluto, its twin Eris, and its moon Dysnomia – this was never a subject I expected to enjoy. But you remember the line from “The King and I”, “When you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.”
And more broadly, if we are teaching children the skills of analysis and evaluation, then maybe we should not forget that all forms of entertainment can and should be open to examination, and who knows, it may only be a matter of time before we see Assassins creed on an A level syllabus, but I trust and hope that this will not be at the expense of Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer. As parents, teachers and children, we need to practice celebrating the unexpected and we should perhaps reflect that an idea not worth examining is not really worth having.
I want to finish with a few words of praise in the same spirit – the past 6 years at Ratcliffe have seen great change and stupendous leadership. I have got to know Ratcliffe again under the robust headship of Mr Lloyd and we can all be very proud in what Mr Lloyd has achieved. I have mentioned the kindness which I knew in my day and I know that same kindness is treasured today. I have also mentioned providence and the idea of rejoicing both in what has past and rejoicing in what is to come.
This year, Gareth, as you enter your final year at Ratcliffe, you can be assured you will go forward in the sure knowledge that the ideals of the school are secure, that your future is sound and you will look back, I assure you, with great pride on your days as a Ratcliffian.
Tim Wilson 2016