Headmaster’s Thoughts – May 2005

One’s memory is very selective about what it thinks was important in one’s childhood. I remember being very apprehensive about going to a new school when I was eleven. It was a State School, albeit a selective one, and there were rumors of bullying of first year students (the equivalent of sixth graders). I also remember subsequently finding out that none of these stories were true, and that my schoolmates—who, because of the neighborhood of the school, were mostly Irish—had genuinely bought into the philosophy of the school as a community whose inhabitants were to be mutually supported.

I also remember, perhaps too vividly, how valiantly I tried to impress. It was a failure that reached its zenith at a tree outside what was then the center of England’s soccer world, a stadium called Wembley Stadium in North London near the School. I was with older students, and we had gone to the woods near the stadium after school on a Friday. From the upper branch of a tree hung a long rope. The deal was that you climbed the tree and launched yourself at the rope, catching it, swinging on it, and then lowering yourself to the ground. From my perspective on that ground, the rope towered above me like the spire of a tall church. I am since convinced that it was probably less than 15 feet high, but that would not have been my calculation at the time. Colin Campbell was the first to climb the tree and jump to the rope. Swinging, with whoops of pleasure, he gently lowered himself to earth. Max O’Donnell went next. Similarly effortless! Nigel Chidley was the third to go and, after he was successfully back on the ground, it was my turn. I should say, in my hurried defense, that Colin, Max, and Nigel were a year older than I was. I think that’s it for my defense. Because—reasonably or not—I was terrified, I assumed I would launch at, and miss, the rope. Catching the rope was clearly quite important to the whole endeavor, and my confidence about accomplishing this was rather low.

So, to my own astonishment, I heard myself say to the others that I would rather not climb the tree. The other three looked at me with interest. I think Colin smiled and then said; “Okay, you can do it another time.”

It is difficult to appreciate the generosity of those words and how they helped me. Basically, Colin was acknowledging that you don’t have to do something if you don’t feel comfortable doing it. None of the boys laughed. Some of them continued to climb the tree again to swing on it and then we all went to buy candy. No one called me a coward, something they would certainly have been entitled to do, and no one, to my knowledge, has ever brought it up again until now.

Nearly fifty years later, I now, in a twist of irony, think of what I did with pride. I seem to have had enough self confidence to be true to my instincts that were to keep my feet on the ground. It is a lesson I think of when students tell me that they HAD to do something stupid or unethical (please don’t ask!) because the other students did and expected them to do the same. I think that if they had a greater sense of self and a lesser state of desperation to fit in, so as to be able to say NO, simply and straightforwardly, none of their fellow students would think the less of them.

We did not have words then such as “diss” or even “losing face.” The culture was more tolerant and we were not interested in putting each other down. I may not have been the bravest, but I ran fast and was, at times, funny. I think that when anyone got hurt, which in hindsight happened quite a lot, I would stay with him and take him home. I sometimes wonder if this camaraderie would have changed if my school had been a co-ed one. After all, showing off to boys is not as much fun as showing off to girls. I fear to travel that thought route. I hope Colin would have smiled at my fateful refusal if there had been girls around, but I am not so sure.

My conclusion from all this is that although I totally believe in a co-ed school, there are some things that boys should do alone, and, of course, girls should do alone. too. I have no idea what girls should do alone, but, when it comes to the “leaping in space at a rope” category, I think it best if it is an all-male affair. If you are at such a gathering and have cold feet at the end, I hope that you have the kindness of a Colin to acknowledge that you are entitled to make your own decisions about what you do. Not a particularly common philosophy among twelve-year-olds today, but one that I highly recommend.

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org