…And the wisdom to know the difference

Having undoubtedly stumbled upon the barren wastelands of middle age, it would be far too easy to look back upon past events and pay gratuitous homage to regret. The dreams and aspirations of youth seem strangely unattainable now, and life has acquired an almost brutal propensity for galloping inexorably onwards, whether we like it or not.

And yet, if one can just look beyond the aging reflection in the mirror (and embrace with gratitude the many blessings that life has bestowed upon us) there’s a chance that something of the indomitable adolescent spirit of yesteryear, just might endure.

Without a doubt, the last twelve months have afforded plenty of opportunity for reflection and a great many people have found themselves looking at ways in which they might alter certain aspects of their lives – either through necessity, choice, or a combination of the two. 

Only a matter of days ago, I was reading an article entitled ‘Mental Health and the Covid-19 Pandemic’ and it was fascinating (and somewhat alarming) to learn of the many and varied emotional reactions that are likely to have been triggered by such a virus. Mercifully for many, resilience will have come to the fore and indeed, some people will have found new strengths and developed fresh coping mechanisms. However, for those who have been exposed to significant trauma, depression and anxiety are likely to have either surfaced or intensified and will no doubt have been exacerbated by the need to shield or self-isolate.     

For me personally, the aspect I struggled most with was having my freedom (coupled with the ability to make any plans whatsoever) suspended indefinitely. Without the prospect of a family holiday on the horizon (and feeling utterly starved of any external form of social interaction) I’ll happily admit that the working week seemed significantly less alluring! However, having two young sons to take care of gave me the purpose that I so desperately needed – and we often talk about the endless bike rides and home baking sessions that carried us all through.

And so, being mindful of the fact that 2020 taught us that we can never be entirely in control of our own destiny, the sentiments of the ‘Serenity Prayer’ seem as pertinent now, as ever they were:

‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’

Calling all Superheroes!

I often think that parenting is akin to an extreme form of superhero training. There may not be any kryptonite involved (and I’ve yet to encounter any infinity stones) but daily survival has, nonetheless, been known to present its own challenges with everyone’s wellbeing (especially mine) frequently left hanging (rather precariously) in the balance.

However, even the most stressful of mornings (when the relatively straightforward task of leaving the house as a family unit, suitably equipped for the day with one’s sanity broadly intact) has nothing on the abject horror of the ‘in-tray exercise’!

Yes, with one foot firmly seated in middle age (and the other desperately seeking a new and exciting chapter) I finally came up against this veritable instrument of cognitive torture. And I have to admit that I was more than willing to wave the white flag of surrender just a few short minutes later!

For those of you who haven’t yet had the ‘pleasure’ of such an experience, let me attempt to give you an indication of what to expect.

Now obviously, my little Pandora’s (In)Box was full of school-based scenarios – the likes of which (if they were to occur simultaneously on a Monday morning as suggested) would literally require the help of the ‘Avengers’ and the ‘Justice League’ combined in order to demonstrate even a modicum of managerial supremacy – but if you can imagine apocalyptic levels of employee, client, or customer dissatisfaction, coupled with a lack of resources and wholly unrealistic deadlines, then this should prove universally relevant!

In just 30 minutes one is required to ‘solve’ a seemingly near exhaustive list of ‘problems’, ranking them in order of priority and explaining what course of action should be taken. Simple, right?

Wrong!

Because for every choice that you make, you are basically providing your future employer with a Velux style window to your soul, laying bare your capacity (or otherwise!) for compassion, logic, and leadership. And the final straw here, is that your line manager will almost certainly be ‘unavailable’ to lend any support to this fire-fighting exercise, and your future colleagues are apparently representative of the very small percentage of the population for whom physical or mental impairment should really have rendered them unemployable – and thoroughly deserving of every benefit going!

The final twist, of course, is that (having prioritised the immediate safeguarding concerns of any pupil who has been hypothetically placed in your care; having dealt with any pressing staffing shortages; having provided pastoral support to a distressed team member; having prepared the necessary academic data for a governors’ meeting; having written a captivating article for the newsletter; having responded to a parental complaint; having disciplined a junior member of staff and having referred a parent back to the school’s policy on the administering of medication) your own child is apparently in need of urgent help too.

What to do now? Where exactly should your own ‘flesh and blood’ rank in all of this? I mean, if you deal with your own son / daughter ahead of a school issue, then there’s a strong chance that you will be inviting criticism along the lines of
a) not being very dedicated to your job or
b) failing to take your professional responsibilities seriously.
Then again, to ignore your own child’s ‘cry for help’ paints you in a rather unfavourable light too – not to mention lining you up nicely for a child protection concern that is frankly a little too close to home!

Thirty minutes later, I left the confines of that tiny office a mere shadow of my former self.

My head was literally throbbing with the strain of trying to deal with such a kaleidoscope of child-related chaos; the academic data had been delegated to possibly the only other suitable senior leader (assuming that they were not, of course, amongst the previously mentioned high numbers of staff absences); my newsletter article was about as engaging as a bowl of tapioca (having managed to devote just 2 minutes and 48 seconds to it, off the back of far too much ethical and logistical deliberation) and try as I might, I couldn’t quite shake off the feeling that I had more than likely overlooked something of real significance.

In summary, I suspect that my performance was moderate to mediocre, and it was undeniably an experience that I would be in no particular hurry to repeat. However, in a humble attempt to adhere to my original analogy, I would suggest that certain qualities would be a minimum requirement – if ever (like me) you should find yourself bravely pursuing ‘in-tray utopia’…

At the very least, you should aim to exhibit the genius of Iron Man, the leadership of Captain America, the resilience of Thor and the compassion of Superman. Otherwise, prepare for the comparative ignominy of, for example, Marvel’s Jack of Hearts.

A brief encounter

Many years ago, I had the privilege of meeting someone truly remarkable. It was one of those chance encounters that renders you momentarily speechless, then acts as a powerful catalyst for change.

It was a dismal February evening and I had just left a rehearsal in central London. We’d been working on Michael Tippett’s five spirituals from ‘A Child of Our Time’ and it had been one of those rehearsals where you come away feeling as though your soul has been suitably nourished, and that something within the music has transcended human understanding.     

I had been experiencing some problems with anti-social behaviour in and around the housing development where I lived, and I was seriously considering handing in my notice at work and moving away from the area. However, having just been part of something so utterly inspiring, I was loath to concede defeat and allow the local ‘Youf’ to drive me out of my home and away from my Monday night refuge.

Having caught up on everyone’s weekly news over a quick drink, we all went our separate ways, as was the usual routine. I headed for Victoria station and, upon arrival, gave the departures board a cursory glance. My heart plummeted when I discovered that, not one, but two trains to Swanley had been cancelled and that I would have just over an hour to wait. There was nothing for it. I would just have to grab a coffee and a magazine and set up residence on platform 5.

When my train did eventually arrive, I was delighted to note that two cancellations had not rendered this three-carriage-wonder ludicrously full, and I settled thankfully into my window seat. Before long, the train pulled away and I felt reassured that home was now within reach.

The first part of the journey passed without incident and I became quickly engrossed in my magazine. There were additional stops to make, but there was something pleasantly mesmerising about the staccato rhythm of the wheels moving over the track and the sound of needles of rain bouncing off the windows at jaunty angles. And then I became aware of a different sound. The sound of raised voices and dull thuds.

I felt myself stiffen and the all too familiar feeling of fear and unease (associated with broken windscreens and trampled fences close to home) resurfaced. I looked around the carriage in an attempt to establish where the noise was coming from. And then I spotted the silhouettes of three men looming in the doorway of the adjacent carriage. It was not immediately clear what they were doing, but their presence was both threatening and unwelcome, reminiscent of an ITV drama, but sickeningly real. In a matter of minutes, the train slowed, and all three men came hurtling through our carriage, disappearing just as suddenly into the night.        

A little later, a young man staggered into view and gingerly lowered himself into an aisle seat. He had a cut on his face and looked badly shaken but there was a disarming aura of composure about him too. I didn’t know what to say. I mean, “Are you alright?” seemed painfully inadequate and yet I couldn’t just ignore his plight altogether. So, I made do with frequent glances in his direction, hoping against hope that he would somehow sense my feeble attempt at compassion. He must have done, because he looked straight at me before giving me the most tender of smiles. But rather than providing the comfort that was no doubt intended, the warmth of his gaze made me feel even more ashamed. How could he be so calm, after what he had just endured? Hadn’t he just been badly let down by his fellow passengers? By me?

As if he could read my thoughts, he said simply “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do”. And as he left the train, I wept uncontrollably; not just for him, but for humankind.