Headmaster’s Thoughts — February 2016

Occasionally, one will read an article by an educator who believes that we give out too many awards in schools today. Their objection is that if every child competing in an academic or athletic event gets a medal, then the whole process of receiving accolades is demeaned, and the medals are insultingly worthless.

I disagree. And my disagreement is totally based – as so many things are for most of us – on my personal experience. I was an enthusiastic, but not a particularly talented, athlete. I was a fast runner, and that is about it. The last real athletic achievement I remember is winning the 100-yard race at my high school’s annual field day. That I remember who I beat (Nigel Chidley and Colin Campbell,) only serves to show that I am still recovering from the shock of winning, because I was convinced that they were both faster than I was.

When I went to Oxford, each residential college of the 24 or so that comprised the total number in the University (there are more now) played each other in a competition called “Cuppers.” I assume that means the winning team won a cup, but none of the teams I ever played on did. The important thing was that we played every sport possible. At the time I was at Wadham College, there were about 180 male students. (Now there are over 400 students both men and women.) Out of those 180, there were a few outstanding athletes, and about 20 of us who played a great number of sports because we were needed for the team and not because we were any good. Wadham was known as an intellectual college that took most of its students from State Schools. The result was that it had a very good soccer team and a truly mediocre rugby team. Rugby was considered a more upper-class enterprise played by young aristocrats at boarding schools. It happened that at my state secondary school, which was run like a very prestigious private school by its excellent Headmaster, we played Rugby and not soccer. And so, at Wadham I played Rugby. One season we lost all 18 of our games.

If you look at a photo of the rugby team at Wadham that hangs in my office, you may notice the skinniest player in the back row. That is me. There are no advantages to being thin in playing rugby. Newton’s Third Law of Physics states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In my case that meant that if I collided with a heavier player, the reaction would not be equal. I, to be blunt, would get hammered. So I spent a great deal of energy avoiding getting caught with the ball since the rule states that you can only get tackled if you have the ball in your possession. Considering that holding the ball while carrying it over the end line to score a “try” was essential to my position, left wing three-quarter, you can begin to see that I was not destined for greatness in the sport of rugby.

Apart from rugby, I played wherever I was needed. Badminton, croquet (now that is a sport that can be both mean spirited and yet very safe), track (sprints) and field (long jump, pole vault and high jump), water polo and swimming, ice hockey and sailing. I should mention that I had never pole vaulted before, and I think I could jump higher without the pole than with it. Let us be honest; it just gets in the way. I learned to sail well enough on the upper subsidiary reaches of the Thames that I could teach it when I came to Tripp Lake Camp for Girls in the summers as a counsellor. It is there that I met Jayme. Across all sport, the whole “team” experience was fun not because of winning, since we did not do much of that, but because of the fellowship of the players.

There were a few astonishingly gifted athletes at Wadham. The right wing three-quarter, who played for England (yes, England!), was my contemporary E.L. “Ted” Rudd. He rarely played for the college (Can you blame him?) but when he did, I would stand around and watch him run. The ball was certainly never passed to me. An extraordinarily gifted Canadian ice-hockey player, also a brilliant Rhodes Scholar physicist, Henry Glyde, was the mainstay of the hockey team. I could not skate backwards so I just skated around (forwards only) and if, by some chance, the puck came my way, I did my best to get it to Henry who then would score a goal. Similarly in water polo, we had Murray McLachlin, a Rhodes Scholar from South Africa. He placed 6th in the 1500-meters swimming freestyle final at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. A superb water-polo player, he stood about six feet six inches and was universally called “Titch” (which means “tiny” in England) because of his size. I paddled around, and if, again by chance, the ball came close to me, I would work quite hard to get it to Titch, who would promptly score. The fact that we never actually won “cuppers” in any of the sports I competed in only proves that one outstanding athlete does not a team make.

The most fun of all was playing a sport that I am terrible at; cricket. The rugby players like me, who could not make the college cricket team (which tried to play seriously), instead had our own team called the “Freebooters.” This was a drinking and cricket-playing club that is best described as “liquid cricket.” The liquid was always beer. Thus you could take a full beer mug with you when you went to the outfield as a defender. One of the rules of the club (in fact the ONLY rule of the club as far as I could see) was that “failure to score a run or hold a catch shall not be ascribed to moral obliquity.” Thus, you could not be called out for a duck, another name for scoring zero, and would bat on until you scored a run. (This would be the equivalent in college baseball of a player staying at bat until he scores a hit that gets him to first base.) Sometimes, getting that run could take time. Now that I think of it, there may have been some other rules, but they all had to do with who paid for which beers and had nothing to do with the sport itself. We were the worst cricketers possible and played the local teams of very rural villages. Our opponents may have been surprised that our batsmen stayed in and continued to play after the ball had knocked the wicket over and the batter was technically out. They may also have been surprised by the relaxed way the team reacted when one of our members dropped a catch, or by the presence of girl followers whose roles were to ensure that fielder’s beer mugs were kept full, which involved trotting out onto the field with full beer jugs. When, as inevitably happened, the village teams understood what was happening, they joined in the spirit of the whole thing quite enthusiastically with many of their jugs carrying far more powerful liquids than the ale we were drinking. I cannot remember if anyone ever “won” a game, but they were always considered a great success, and we would be invited back for the next year with great expressions of friendship. It must have been our “insouciance.” In fact, we had so many villages who wanted to play us that we tried never to visit the same team two years in a row. This helped preserve that special sense of “surprise” for the new, young players of the opposing team.

I have come a long way from my original statement about everyone getting medals, but like a runner racing on a track, I have returned to my original position after all; at the end of the season, every one of the Freebooters got a medal. You could not get off the field without a triumph of a run, a drink, and a medal at the final match of the year. For a student at a highly-pressured university where students were very competitive, the Freebooters represented the perfect antidote to stress and perhaps taught a deeper lesson about friendship, teamwork, and fun. Now that is worthy of medals and glory for all.

Ronald P. Stewart