Carlo Maratti 'Adoration by the Magi (in garland) Late 17th century. The flower garland was executed by Mario Nuzzi, nicknamed Mario dei Fiori.
I love the Epiphany, the story of the three kings. I love it all, from the gold hats in nativity plays to Eliot’s question about birth or death. I especially like Evelyn Waugh’s Helena’s commendation of the Magi – she calls them her especial patrons, inspiration to all those who have a long and difficult journey to the truth. I think that’s why I like adolescents so much, with their hopeful and random gifts, and their determination to make the hard journey to adulthood even harder.
However, Christmas comes first and we had our celebrations and ritual events, from the Christmas hamper competition to the appearance of tinsel and antlers upon the corporate body. (In my younger years I once found myself wearing antlers with bells on at a staff meeting where redundancies were being announced so I’ve been personally cautious around them ever since, but no matter.) We also had a whole-school end of term assembly which, in a school of nearly 2000, takes some planning. There’s probably a formula for working out how long it takes to load a large sports hall with adolescents and we would have been underway within 20 minutes if one form hadn’t taken a roundabout route to join us. However, we kept the hordes reasonably quiet and, distracting fidgety year sevens by getting them to introduce themselves to a sixth former each, generated a pleasant atmosphere. Children like to chat, so sitting on a clean floor chewing the fat in a Christmassy manner is perfectly acceptable as an end of term diversion.
This week we regroup and continue our journey into the future from Twelfth Night. Christmas and New Year can distract even the most assiduous teacher from his or her planning and marking so people usually come back in cheery spirits, occasionally accompanied by a diverting garment to add to their school repertoire.
One of the odder things I was asked by Tallis men when I arrived was if I felt strongly about flowery shirts as if my own paisley trousers weren’t enough of a hint. Brilliant teaching is a matter of hard work, determination, scholarship and communication. As long as a chap is pressed and freshly laundered I don’t need to choose his clothes. I’d baulk at tee shirts and jeans, but really, let a thousand flowers bloom. What’s wrong with showing young people that you can be a learned public servant and trusted with your own eccentricities? Teachers need to be clever, well trained, decently paid and expert in developing hardworking relationships with young people. They need to be fully professional, that is, able to make the right decisions when faced with unavoidable ambiguity. Shirt design is neither here nor there.
It’s not surprising, however. The kind of command structure common in schools that can make the proscribing of flowery shirts seem like a reasonable act has its roots in a fear of the human spirit and the difficult journey. Even allowing children to chat in corridors is banned in some lauded schools. Our combination of teachers in flowery shirts encouraging civilised small talk while one group made a longer journey to join the community is far from the prevailing orthodoxy about behaviour management.
The finale at our Christmas assembly was a huge performance of One Day Like This by a hundred young musicians. If you don’t know the song, let me recommend it to you. As they sang about throwing the curtains wide and the samba drummers raised the temperature I hoped that 2014 might bring an outbreak of understanding of the human spirit and the human journey. That maybe one day the sheer joy and exuberance found in communities of growing human beings led by devoted adults might be trusted and valued as part of our national life. That one day the comprehensive ideal which encapsulates all our hopes might be recognised as a vision every bit as great as the foundation of the NHS. As the song says: one day like this a year would see me right.