Headmaster's Thoughts

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  • Headmaster's Thoughts: March 2020

    For those with stamina, there are two essays this month.
    As I approach my 200th essay in this series of “Headmaster’s Thoughts”, I realize, yet again, why I write them. Clearly, I feel compelled to write in a therapeutic (and some may say narcissistic) spasm of urgency. But I am also conscious of the fact that while so many writers feel this need, there is no corresponding group of readers.  In reality, we have an army of writers and a platoon of readers.

    Our young people rarely read for their own enjoyment. Faced with video games, television and films, audiobooks and social media buzz from their “friends”, the desire to read books has faded away. Unquestionably, when I was young, there were very few of the distractions I have listed. In the house of my childhood, we had no television (only radio) and, of course, none of the computer options to learn from or play with.  I, and my generation, just had books. There were libraries to serve us, and shelves to put them on.  Certainly, books are still being read, but by a shrinking cohort of readers. Reading is not a regular habit but it is increasingly left for moments of leisure (“holiday reading”), or moments when we are trapped, such as on a plane or waiting for a doctor (and then it is only a magazine).
    Even my generation, readers as we were, read less now. And little of what we read could be called “classic” timeless fiction. When, a few summers ago, I finally read War and Peace, I treated the whole experience as though it had been an event in my life. It was not; I just read a great (and long) book. Something that would be unexceptional in an earlier time.
    My concern about the loss of reading by young people is that the act of reading, of interpreting the written word, allows the reader’s imagination to create the characters and the scenery. The Lyra character that I imagined when I first read Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy, was not shaped by any other representation. The books had not yet been made into movies. Now that they have (twice), I wonder if my original mental image of Lyra would be shaped by the portrayal of the part by the actresses in those productions.  I suspect they would.  James Norton was a handsome Prince Andrei in the British TV series of War and Peace.  I am glad I read the book first so that my image of the Prince was not influenced by Norton’s masterful performance. Sometimes the original book had illustrations, but, almost always, those were with the consent and collaboration of the author.  Lewis Carroll (in reality, Charles Dodgson) worked with Sir John Tenniel to illustrate Alice for both Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass. The picture of Alice that Tenniel drew, printed as it was with every copy of the duology, limited and shaped my imagination of how Alice would look; a long-faced, blonde girl with a headband, dressed in a frock. This image was difficult to get out of my mind as I read the books. Realistically, such author/illustrator collaborations are very rare. And they never apply to non-fiction works, which are written with greater frequency, (see narcissism above), particularly by those who had any possible say in the way the political government is run. Their shelf lives are invariably brief.
    We, as all schools do, assign required reading. How much this helps or hurts is debatable. Clearly, it is very difficult to teach a class on a work of fiction (or non-fiction) if the students have not read it. But does this encourage them to read non-required books to extend their knowledge of literature, or for the pure joy of learning? I am not so sure. I have optimistic ideals, namely that we inspire our young to seek out writers who resonate with them, or books on topics that they want to delve into more thoroughly. But there are few metrics to establish how much we succeed in this, and I have my fears that modern technology has severely diminished the reading audience among this generation of adolescents.
    The number of writers has grown. Indeed many television shows are used as places to hawk new books by people momentarily in the limelight. They may be forgotten in a year, but in the meanwhile, they plug their book. This does not lead to works of great literature that take years (five years in the case of War and Peace) to write. There are always outliers, and J.K. Rowling is a good example, where an author has produced a masterpiece after years of research, but they are rare. In contrast, you get people like me who, in the end, write for ourselves, internally driven to set something on paper, and unconcerned that very few will read it.
    In my case, to those very few; thanks!  

    Dear Boris,

    Are you having problems with the Royals? This family who are only where they are because their ancestors were warlords. This dysfunctional group who got their billions through theft and execution. I sympathize and have a solution. We, at York Prep, will take over.
    After all, what do the Royals do but accept flowers from reluctant children pushed at them by determined stage-mother parents? No problem; we have dealt with children and parents and are experts in the field. In fact, I can tell you who of us will do what. We do not want to supplant Queen Elizabeth. Even I, a republican if ever there was one, would accept that she has done a good job in keeping the “firm” (or family business) together since 1952. We, at York, would not replace her. But she cannot go on for too much longer and then what? Charles and Camilla? I mean the man wrote obscenities about his desires for her while still married to Diana. Tacky! And those ears? He looks too much like Dumbo with a good suit. William, stiff as a board, with his equally stiff wife, Kate. Harry, rebellious and ungrateful youth and his interesting (and I have a sneaking admiration for) wife Meghan, and then Princess Anne, who I have always thought as the coolest of the bunch, although she sometimes looks as though she is in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta when she wears her cocked admiral’s hat.
    But have no fear. We will step up. Leave the Queen and the ailing Prince Philip in place. Not for too much longer, one fears. But thereafter, I think I would make a good Charles (my ears are much flatter) and Jayme could be Camilla. Jayme wants to play a reborn Diana but history is history and she will just have to bear it all with a Camilla smile. We could accept those little bouquets of flowers. We could sit in the Royal Box at the finals of every major sport, not to even mention the Olympics, and we will suffer having a mounted troop lead us in the landau carriage drawn by four white horses. I think they would look good on Columbus Avenue. Jeremy Clark and John Beich could agree as to who would be William and who Harry (I am not going there and I leave it to them). Both are married with children so there is clear resemblance. They could join us in the Royal Box and maybe their landaus would only have two horses each (not necessarily white). Heather Marshall seems a perfect Princess Anne, although perhaps without the silly hat. But Princess Anne is the closest Royal in terms of acceptance of her duties to the Queen and seems truly to the manor born. Heather would be great. After that, I suppose one comes to the “minor” royals and I think we could dispense with most of them in the interests of economy.
    I wrote in January’s Thoughts that schools are the last leg standing in the three-legged affair of Church/ Temple, family and School. In Britain, one might argue that the Royal Family is the fourth leg and it is crumbling. We are here to make it sturdy. We will accept the burden of office, the agony of the billions of dollars in assets, the annoyance of owning huge estates, the encumbrance of wearing medals we never won fighting anyone, the silly costumes and, for the ladies, foolishly angled hats that always look at though they should fall off but somehow don’t, and the general nuisance of having so many servants around. We will do this for Britain and you, Boris. If I were you, I would grab this offer. Please address all correspondence to the Palace, 40 West 68th Street. And remember to bow when you meet us.
    Ronald P. Stewart
    York Prep