Headmaster's Thoughts: January 2023

This being the beginning of a New Year, let me wish all of our readers a very joyous 2023. After 18 years of writing these monthly thoughts, I proposed to Jeremy Clarke, with who I share an office and, indeed, running the school, that I delegate to him the writing of this month’s thoughts. He agreed, so here they are:
I am grateful to Mr. Stewart for offering me the baton this month, and especially to do so at the beginning of the New Year. School days between September and December are always the most intense, in my view. These are our two shortest quarters, during which the weather becomes frigid, seniors anxiously await responses from their Early Decision schools, and we squeeze in Field Day, Halloween, International Dinner, two Wellness Days, the fall play, and Midterms among much else. I am sure the students join the teachers in welcoming this holiday break. We look ahead now to a semester with a little more room to breathe. To me, January to June always feels a little like climbing down the other side of the mountain.
But of course, this past semester, our school was also gripped by a rare event that seeped into much of what we were doing: the Soccer World Cup. I applaud the ingenuity of our teachers for the many ways they managed to get the tournament into their curriculum. The Spanish teachers had it easiest, projecting the games along with the Spanish commentary; our halls echoing with cries of “Goooooooooal!”. Sports reporting proliferated in English classes. My favorite was a middle school physics class, from which I overheard a lively explanation of why the ball was bending when kicked at various angles and speeds.
Each morning in December, the lobby was a place to debate the games, to crow or commiserate. Students found ways to get various national colors into their dress code. This extended to the faculty, too. A special congratulations to Spanish Teacher Ms. O’Donnell, who won the office pool with Argentina, edging out our Director of Technology, Mr. Abba, who had the French.
In this World Cup, there was much to admire about the performances of the players, but a few resonated with me in particular. I hold two passports, as do my three children, so we were proud to see USA and Australia both progress from their respective groups. This was an achievement against the odds in both cases. But I thought the greatest individual performance was actually off the field, by the young American captain, Tyler Adams. In the lead up to their game against Iran, he was baited by journalists in the hope he would write them a headline. Adams’s response was exceptional. It was thoughtful, optimistic, respectful yet strong; a subtle nod of allegiance to protesters in Iran. I encourage anyone who has not heard it to watch it here.
Equally, there were few soccer romantics not moved by the fairy tale of Lionel Messi, achieving the only accolade in the world’s game that had so far eluded him. Nor by the passion of Morocco’s fans, who saw their team become the first African nation ever to reach the semi-finals. This one was particularly close to my heart. Before I lived in Oxford and New York, I spent several years working as a journalist in Africa. It is an intensely diverse place, divided by language, culture, and history, and soccer helps unite the continent’s 54 countries. This was the premise of my friend Steve Bloomfield’s book, Africa United. Steve and I worked in Africa together and we marveled at the imagination and camaraderie stirred by soccer in every place we traveled to.
I remember much of it vividly. Children playing with a rolled-up pair of socks as a ball. A militia laying down arms when we invited them to a game outside their barracks. Men traveling hours on a bus each weekend, from tiny villages to the capital, to watch English teams play on television. You could guess their ages by their teams. The elder supporters were passionate for teams whose glory days matched their childhoods – Manchester United, or Arsenal. The younger supporters were avid fans of Chelsea and Manchester City. As a Liverpool fan (where my grandmother was born), more than once I was hushed by a friend when I joined a lively debate among rivals. “This means more to them than you could know.”
I was working in Europe when Germany hosted the World Cup in 2006, and then in Africa when that continent hosted its first World Cup, in 2010. The pride you felt everywhere was electric. Every town seemed at a standstill. Then, during the final in South Africa, a terrorist attack in Uganda sent us all running for the airport to cover the story. A sad end to a beautiful, joyful month. But it was with these memories that I watched Morocco’s remarkable progress in this tournament, knowing that 1.4 billion people stood behind them and celebrated their success on behalf of a soccer-mad continent.
Now the World Cup is done for another four years, but I hope some impression was made on the minds of new fans at our school. If you happened to catch the bug, all the stars of this World Cup now return to the leagues of Europe and South America. At my team, Liverpool, the captain of the Netherlands will be joined in defense by the Brazilian goalkeeper and players from Ghana, Scotland, Greece, and France. Their teammates in front of them, in attack, will be players from Egypt, Colombia, Spain, Uruguay, Portugal, and Guinea. There is surely something special about following a team, and a sport, so united in this way. Often, they do not share a common language, and yet their communication on the field is exquisite.
My new hope is that Liverpool recruits Tyler Adams. Though I know that would disappoint our Athletics Director, Mr. Curran, born and raised in Leeds, where the American captain currently plays.
My daughter, who is 7, certainly caught the bug. She repeats the lines she has heard from me: “The US Women’s team are world champions, and one of their players is dating the best women’s player in the world, Samantha Kerr, from Australia. She’s on the front of FIFA23 with Mbappe.” If that sentence means anything to you, you may be as far gone as my daughter and me. For everyone else, I encourage you not to wait another four years, but to watch a few of the Saturday club games this winter. American football, the NFL, will still be there for you on Sunday.
In that spirit, let me wish you all some joy and unity this holiday season, and a successful 2023.
Jeremy Clarke
Co-Head of School
York Prep