I’ve been involved in a twitterstorm of late. When I say involved, I mean that someone tweeted dismissively about a group of people which included me. In order for me to be involved, someone had to email the tweet to me, but it eventually hit the spot and annoyed. Anyway, I was dismissed as one of ‘a bunch of officials who no-one’s ever heard of’ meaning, I assume, that our opinions were worthless because they hadn’t been pre-approved by celebrity despite being democratically elected to do a difficult deed. Harumph.
I recalled a conversation I had back in 2013 when I was preparing to come to Greenwich. A friendly colleague (outside Tallis) said ‘of course, no-one’s ever heard of you, but we looked you up and you seem to be doing a good job.’ I was mildly outraged as well as amused. Durham to London is another world but I wasn’t unknown among educators there. And what does it matter? Who said knowing you validated my existence? I only met you a month ago.
We struggle a bit in school with this. Social media for some of our young is like being trapped in a cocktail party where all the posh people know each other. If you’re peripheral, you need resilience. Loneliness and social exclusion are ever-present fears among teenagers and now there’s no escape from the yattering of the crowd that you’re not part of. Playgrounds have always had elites, but now they’re validated in cyberspace, in pictures and home movies, in conversation shouted across the ether. It’s hard for them all, hard when they fall out, hard to keep up the pretence of knowing everyone as a way of proving you exist, especially hard when adults are obsessed with it too.
That’s not to say that some teenagers aren’t almost magically contented away from the crowd. Yesterday, first lunch, after ejecting a large group of loud girls I wandered off to survey other diners. The readers with their novels, absently picking at their sandwiches, and the card-swappers leaning right over the tables. A group of small boys trying on each other’s glasses and chortling. The mixed bunch gathered round the motherly sixth former, and the ones who choose the pundit stools ready like meerkats to engage teachers in chat. An illicit homework catcher-upper lurking behind a pillar, and my current favourites, a tidy pair of year 8 boys, had their habitual quiet chat over lunch before zipping up their topcoats and taking a dignified turn around the yard before the whistle.
There’s strength in quiet industry and decent human endeavour and it doesn’t need to be demonstrated publicly. An old head chum of mine, Australian Barry, possums, had a quiet way with words. We’d been talked at by one of Tony Blair’s deliverers who had segued from the officious to the patronising. Barry’s opening remark was ‘Son, I’d taught on three continents before you were born’. Later, in a tetchy session reflecting on another colleague’s self-promoting BBC appearance he just said ‘For shame. You give us all a bad name.’ Barry’s career passed in obscure diligence leading a good school in a dull town. No-one had ever heard of him, except the generations of families he served. His slap of the young pup was only partly exasperation. He was saying, eloquently to my junior ears, that you may be in the papers and heading for a knighthood, matey, but I’ve done my best for 40 years, don’t assume I’m not worth listening to, give me a break.
Success in anything shouldn’t be determined by whether we’re known or unknown, but on the quality of our service. We should teach our children that it is quality friendship that matters, not quantity. We should celebrate the quiet life well lived and the hidden goodness of the everyday. We should all understand that human worth is utterly unquantifiable. We should think hard about the example we set as we grasp at fleeting notoriety, and the damage we do to the quiet people around us.
So I tip my fake-fur titfer to the great unknown, as MacNeice said:
To all the things we are not remembered by,
Which we remember and bless. To all the things
That will not even notice when we die,
Yet lend the passing moment words and wings.