Headmaster’s Thoughts December 2018

Happy holidays!

This is the time of the year when over-statement is the norm. We are in the selling season and therefore everything is “the best”, “the finest”, with the subtext that “it is the one you should buy.”  Hyperbole filters throughout our lives and particularly at this time of the year. At school, and as parents, we even succumb to exaggeration by pushing our children to achieve almost impossibly high standards of excellence in everything that they do. We have some exceptional students, and I deeply respect them, but most of us are just, if we are lucky, competent, and occasionally I would like to hear a cheer for plain competence.

I have written before about my mediocrity in playing rugby. If I made a list, there would a long list of activities which I tried, with a considerable degree of enthusiasm, but just was not very good at. I wish I could have played an instrument well; I cannot (in spite of lessons). I was a fair athlete at best, and a reasonably competent, but not distinguished, student when in the 6th grade.

In the school I attended, you received your grades in a large book. This had a page for each semester, and after you received it, you had to return it to the school signed by a parent. It followed you from 6th grade until the end of High School. The book was passed from master to master (this was an all-boys school and this is what we called our all male teachers) who filled in the very top grade achieved for the subject, then the exact grade for the boy whose book it was, followed by a brief comment. At the bottom, the Head of the School wrote one word. His range was limited to “poor”, “mediocre”, or “good”. I think that was as high praise as he ever gave. He was an extremely competent but not effusive man.

The masters were a talented group who, in the main, took their task seriously. I had a wonderful former professor of philosophy at Berlin University who taught senior history. He had escaped Nazi Germany, and was teaching kindergarten in a Welsh school. The headmaster of the school I attended, who had been visiting his family in Wales, realized what a gem of a teacher he was, and literally brought him back to London on the train with him. A less distinguished teacher, but a kind if a rather stiff man, was a former tank major who had been captured by the Germans at the Battle of El Alamein in July 1942. He had sat out the rest of the war as a POW in a German prison camp where he had learned his German from the guards. He was our German teacher. When he discovered that I spoke better German than he could (not a particularly difficult accomplishment), he gave up and spent the remainder of the year lecturing on tank battle strategy, pushing around blackboard erasers to represent armored units.

Discipline at the school was remarkably strong considering that we were taught in classes that numbered about 36. The fact that, in theory, the masters could cane us with a stick definitely helped although, as our time at the school progressed, we realized that none of them actually did. It was something that our Head just would not allow them to do.

So back to hyperbole. It was in the compulsory “Religious Instruction” class (known to all as R.I.) that I learned to appreciate under-statement. I had no interest at all in religion at the age of 11. None! The result was that in the first term I was literally bottom of the class. What I had not appreciated was that the grade for R.I. counted as part of the semester average and therefore the overall rank in the class. So, and looking back I must have been genuinely aggrieved to do this, I determined to study the Bible. If that was what was needed to be done, then that was what I would do! Apostles, Saints; the whole 9 yards. I remember that I even had a favorite book; the Book of Job. Thus, in the second semester, I went from the bottom of a class of 36 to the top of the class. And here is where the lack of hyperbole comes in. Next to my grade, now the same as the top grade it sat next to, the master of R.I. had written a comment; “improvement noted.”

If I could have only two words on my gravestone it would be that dry expression; “improvement noted”. But this is not the season for understatement.

Happy Holidays!

Ronald P. Stewart
York Prep School