I see that the huge statue of the Confederate general Robert Lee, in Richmond Virginia, has been removed from its plinth. That is a significant move. Let me explain.

Robert Lee was the leader of the Confederate armies in the American Civil War, an icon to those who supported the southern American states. He was certainly a great general, as he won great acclaim despite the fact that the southern states were less well equipped than those in the north, but we need to remember that the Civil War was largely fought to preserve the southern way of life, built on a culture of plantations and the right to hold slaves. Virginia was the front line of the south and Richmond its capital.

I visited Richmond in 2013 together with a couple of black pupils from my school in South Africa. We had a tour of the city, visited the slave museum and some of the significant locations from the civil war and also dropped into a black church. We got a picture of a city divided still along racial lines and its most obvious symbols were the statues of Confederate generals that sit in the middle of Confederate Avenue, the most famous of which was that of General Robert Lee. The fact that it has been taken away is therefore of great significance and doubtless would have been very controversial. Indeed, Donald Trump is up in arms about it, so it is probably a good thing.

Confederate Avenue’s line of statues is extraordinary for another reason. For a very long time there was one roundabout in the middle that did not contain any statue…perhaps they had run out of generals to celebrate. Then, in the 1990s a campaign was launched to place a new statue on the empty space and the people of Richmond voted to erect a statue of the great black American tennis player Arthur Ashe, a native of Richmond. Those of a certain age will remember him defeating the brash young Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon Final, one of the great upsets of tennis history. He was a man of great dignity, who sadly died of Aids contracted from a blood transfusion in his late 40s. As you can imagine, putting up the statue of a black tennis player in the centre of the line of Confederate generals was very controversial, but there it stands to this day, testimony to one of the great fault lines of American society.

Tearing down statues always stirs debate, particularly from the lobby that cries out that their history is being expunged. However, statues are symbols of what society values and their public presence can sometimes create great hurt. Rather than tearing them down, it makes sense to me, in many cases, to move statues to museums or other spaces where they can be discussed and put in their context. I am sure that Robert Lee’s statue will appear elsewhere at some point and continue to give rise to lively debate, but his removal does send a good message to the large black population of Richmond that their concerns have been heard and addressed.

On that same visit, we were privileged to be welcomed on Capitol Hill, by Congressman John Lewis, one of the greatest of the civil rights activists, who had been arrested up to 50 times for his protests. I think he is possibly the finest person I have ever met and spent time with, as he talked to us for 30 minutes about his career and his guiding principles.

It is easy to look at the United States and point the finger, but that can also deflect from us looking at the historic injustices in our society and the often shameful history of racial abuse perpetuated closer to home. I should know…I am British! And, even more important and appropriate, we need to look at our own society and our own community and see where we can still learn and improve.

Read more from the Warden’s blog here.

This is the text of the Warden’s sermon at the first Evensong of term, last Sunday.

 

Who is Your Neighbour?

Who is your neighbour? The two greatest commandments in the Bible, we are told, are to love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength and to love your neighbour as yourself. So I ask you again…Who is your neighbour?

Religious people, unfortunately, are often inclined to try to create new rules, to want definitions, to know who is in and who is out. They like certainty and clarity. If you like easy definitions and simple answers this is not a good story for you. It is a familiar story, I hope, …but if it isn’t, let me explain.

A religious lawyer comes up to Jesus and asks him what he needs to do to please God. Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer and asks him how he sees it and the lawyer gives an excellent reply: you should love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength and love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus is impressed and says so. The lawyer feels rather pleased with himself and asks a further question: who is my neighbour? The lawyer wants to define who his neighbour is so that he can be exactly sure who it is that he should be loving. Is it those in his family, or those with whom he does business, his friends perhaps, the people he likes and chooses to be in his circle? Or is it just the Jewish people, those who have the same world view, the same beliefs…those who look the same, speak the same and share his values? He wants a narrow definition that he can easily control and he also wants, I am sure, to know who is not his neighbour, those whom he doesn’t need to worry about. Life is easier when we know exactly who is in and who is out. I think he may have regretted asking that question, but it gives rise to one of the greatest illustrations ever told, the story of the Good Samaritan.

To summarise the story, a man is beaten up and left for dead. Two religious men, greatly respected in their community, pass by and ignore him, reluctant to get involved, afraid the muggers might still be lurking around, concerned that they might become unclean by touching a dead body, full of self-importance that they will be late for their important work. Caring for those who are in need can be a messy business. Then along comes a Samaritan. Now it needs to be understood that Jews and Samaritans did not get on and the Jews looked down on Samaritans as racially inferior. They had nothing to do with them. Why would this Samaritan man stop to help a Jewish man…the injured man would surely not have helped him if the roles were reversed. But this man does not pass by…he stops, he tends the injured man’s wounds, he takes time to nurse him and takes him to an inn, he pays money for his care and promises more if necessary.

Among other things here, Jesus is challenging our racial prejudices. The Jews may have been a chosen people, but that did not give them the right to despise others. Everyone, the Bible makes clear, is made in the image of God. We are all image-bearers, fearfully and wonderfully made. That is something we must remember at all times, a huge lesson for the modern world and a lesson for us too here at St. Columba’s, with our wonderfully diverse community. Every pupil in this school is made in God’s image and that surely demands that we should treat them all with respect and dignity.

The story of the Good Samaritan would have been a great story even if the man who stopped to show mercy had been Jewish, but by making him a despised foreigner it adds so much more power and nuance to the teaching. And it needs to be clearly understood that in telling this story Jesus is being deliberately provocative and his illustration of what it means to be a neighbour would not have gone down well with many of his listeners. Some of them would have been furious. Others, perhaps secretly fed up with the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, would have been delighted and amazed by his boldness and drawn to follow him and listen to him further. They were used to religious teachers or rabbis, but this one was a bit different. Jesus characterises the religious leaders of the day as callous and selfish, while suggesting that even those who were on the outside, not in the club, racially impure, were possibly more acceptable to God than those in the club. You can see why he fell out with the religious authorities, who eventually ended up plotting his death and handing him over to be tortured and killed.

So, with this story in mind, let me ask you again, who is your neighbour? Through every age there have been those who want to define exactly who their neighbour is, so that they can be sure to tick the right boxes and care for the right people. It makes life neater. However, if we are to take on board the lesson from this parable, this story told by Jesus, we will need to rethink our boundaries and widen our circle and be prepared for life to be a bit messier than we might like. Our neighbour, according to Jesus, is anyone we meet who may be in need, anyone who needs our help. In this age, that does not mean just those with whom we live but those whom we come across in any capacity whom we are able to help: the other race, the other community, the other religious belief, those who are suffering, those who have been abandoned. Perhaps our neighbour is the person we see on our screens whom we will never meet face to face, but we are able to support with our time or our finances. Perhaps your neighbour is the Afghan refugee or the asylum seeker, fleeing their country for a better life; perhaps it is the homeless person outside Lidl or the elderly person living on their own down your street; perhaps it is the person in your boarding house who lacks confidence and needs a friendly greeting. Loving your neighbour can be very costly, but sometimes it can also be very simple.

I don’t want to try and define or suggest who your neighbour might be, because Jesus is deliberately getting rid of definitions and comfortable parameters. ‘You can love these ones, but you don’t need to worry about those ones.’ Is that what you would like to know? The smug lawyer who came to Jesus, who gave a good answer and then asked Jesus to define exactly who his neighbour was, got more than he bargained for. I wonder whether he wished afterwards that he had kept his mouth shut after Jesus told him his answer was a good one.

So the question remains and has remained down the ages. Who is your neighbour? You must answer that question for yourself. It is one of the most important questions you can ever ask yourself, but you need to be careful of the answer because it may be awkward or uncomfortable and there is a very good chance that it may not be the one you want to hear.

 

Illustration: The Good Samaritan by by Domenico Campagnola.

From the Warden:

16th June 2021

This is what I would have said at the St Columba’s Day celebrations in the Sports Hall:

How do I begin to summarise the year that is just finishing? Perhaps some future archivist will be trawling through the speeches of Wardens of yesteryear and will come across these words and wonder what had happened. Then he or she will look at the year and say, ‘Oh yes, 2021. That was the year of the pandemic. That was the year that our parents and grandparents told us about.’

On speech days or prize-givings Headmasters extol the successes of the year and celebrate the individual and collective achievements of the school. However, the achievements of this year have been of a very different kind and it feels like a monumental achievement just to have made it to the end of the year. What can a school principal like me talk about when we have not played a match this year, when there have been no full school concerts, no dramatic productions, no trips within Ireland, let alone abroad, not even a chapel service of more than a handful of pupils, with no singing and with faces covered?

It allows me instead talk about some things that matter more than the traditional list of achievements and highlight the strengths of the school in ways that are not measurable and tangible. It gives me space to talk about the value of the people who make up this community and who stick together through thick and thin and ensure that the future is much brighter than the present.

Let me start with the pupils. What a year they have had, living with uncertainty, being separated from their friends for a large portion of the year and, when they have been here, without so many of the aspects of school that provide the fun. It has been a joy in the last few weeks to at least hear some noise around the school and to see them running around in the sunshine. I know that many of them have battled and struggled to cope with all that has happened. I would be lying if I said that we did not have our share of mental health issues. Our young people are like all others, trying to navigate a confusing world of social media noise and bombarded with messages from all sides that tell them that they would be happier if they were thinner or had better skin, were more muscular or more macho, better at exams or better at sport. I think it was always like that, but it seems that much of today’s epidemic of dissatisfaction is intentionally created by industries that want to make all of us, and children in particular, feel inadequate and disappointed in who we are.

That gives a clear mission and focus for schools and especially one like this, which is such a full immersion experience for both boarders and day pupils. We have an obligation to cherish young people for who they are, to celebrate their differences, to affirm their varied characters and talents and teach them to love themselves. As a Christian foundation we uphold the command to ‘love our neighbour as ourselves,’ which, of course, means that we can only love our neighbour properly if we first love ourselves. Of course, I don’t mean that in a narcissistic way, nor that every person should not be a on a journey to develop their values and their character. None of us is the finished article. But I do mean that we need to encourage our children to love who they are, despite the constant feeds that tell them they are inadequate, make billions from their lack of self-esteem and leave a trail of destruction behind them.

This year we have been speaking a lot more about the values of the College, which were chosen by the pupils and staff: Kindness, Compassion, Inclusion, Responsibility, Determination.  And next year we will be using every opportunity to embed them into our regular conversations in chapel and assembly. I’m sure that all parents have the same hopes for their children, that they develop all their talents and fulfil their potential. However, I am convinced that, underneath it all, what we all want most for our children is for them be comfortable in their own skin and to treat other people with respect and love. If we as a school can help that to happen then we have done far more than can be proven by any list of achievements.

The second constituency I want to address is the parents. I have been very grateful for the support that parents have provided throughout the pandemic. I am sure that when you chose St. Columba’s as the school for your children you had visions of attending matches and plays and concerts, and coming to speech day in summer dress, and meeting other parents, with whom you could form friendships, at the same time as your children. I am sure that you wanted more from this year than your children have experienced. However, despite the frustrations, I have always felt that the parents have understood the challenges and how desperate we have been to provide a safe place for their children to learn, even if that safe place was online. I am excited by the prospect of seeing parents back in the heart of the school, attending events and collaborating with us in the joy and celebration of watching their children grow up…and perhaps sharing a few of the tears and heartache as well. But I would like to thank you for your support and your encouragement, which has meant a lot over the course of this wretched time.

Lastly I want to talk about the staff that work here at St. Columba’s. Working in a boarding school is not so much a job as a way of life, all-consuming and relentless, exhausting but wonderfully rewarding. It requires people who give of themselves to an extraordinary degree and don’t count the hours. I am not going to thank individuals but this year has been a team effort like never before. The sanatorium staff have been on the front line and kept us all on our toes; the cleaners have had to work harder than ever before; the catering crew have had to adapt everything that they do and work under stricter conditions than ever; the maintenance team have kept the place looking brilliant and the finance department have tried to balance the books in a very challenging environment, while making sure that everyone has been paying their fees! I cannot express adequately how grateful I am to them all.

Teachers are human and I know that there were times last summer when they feared for their jobs, when we were unsure if boarding schools were going to reopen at all and, even if they did, whether any of the overseas pupils would be allowed into the country. There were days last summer when I was not sure whether I was going to be the last Warden of St. Columba’s. In the midst of this stress, teachers have had to adapt their teaching to go online at very little notice and, if not living in the school, they have been cut off from their colleagues. Those involved most closely in the pastoral care of the pupils have never had to work harder and I am in awe of the work that they do. To say that I am proud of the teaching staff does not begin to do justice to their hard work, determination and commitment to your children. In my mind they are all heroes.

Next year, I hope, will be very different, even if it is not fully back to normal. And I think that we will take huge pleasure in things that we had previously taken for granted. You don’t know what you have until it is taken away. Morning chapel, singing rousing hymns and the gathering of the whole community every morning; sports matches of all kinds…I will be shouting extra loud on the touchline; plays, concerts and choirs…we have a lot of fantastic musicians in the school at the moment from whom we have heard nothing…and what is a school without music? We will need to create new memories and cherish each moment in a new way.

I hope you all have a wonderful summer. Best of luck to those who are leaving…we look forward to welcoming you back when the time is right. And to those who are returning, come back ready for action, ready to get stuck in and to make up for lost time. We are going to hit the ground at full speed.

Floreat Columba et floreant Columbanenses.

If you were not too distracted by the hysteria surrounding the announcement of the European Super League – thank goodness that plan is off the table – you may have been following the verdict following the trial of the police officer who killed George Floyd. I am sure that the whole world breathed a sigh of relief when the verdict was announced and we all hope and pray that it represents a new era in policing and racial justice in the United States.

I was interested this morning to read another headline on the BBC News website, with more encouraging steps to right some of the wrongs of the past. The British have always looked after the cemeteries of their First World War dead very well and they are very moving to visit. However, it transpires that non-white soldiers fighting for the British were never given their own headstones, but were merely listed on memorials, or in documents, or not at all. The actual graves of most are not known. As shocking as it is to our modern sensibilities, it was thought that ‘the average native…would not understand or appreciate a headstone.’ Thus the contribution of thousands of colonial troops to the British war effort has never been properly recognised.

An inquiry has reported that an estimated 50,000 Asian and African troops, who died in the conflict, were ‘commemorated unequally.’ There are now plans afoot to set this record straight and, although I don’t know the form that this will take, it is surely very positive that authorities are not saying merely, ‘let’s make sure we get this right in the future,’ but ‘let’s put right an historic wrong now, albeit 100 years too late.’

It reminds me very much of a trip I made in my last few months in South Africa in 2016, when I visited the historic battlefields of the Zulu War of 1879 and the Boer War, which pitched the British against the Afrikaaners from 1899-1902. At the time these wars captured the imagination of the British public like no other and tales of derring-do were eagerly reported in the British press. Now we are rather embarrassed by it all, although it is a fascinating period of history. My first visit was to Spion Kop, a major battle of the Boer War, as well as an embarrassing British defeat. On a rocky hilltop hundreds of troops from Liverpool were mown down, but their heroism was commemorated in the naming of a new stand at Anfield, the ground of Liverpool Football Club, which, because it was steep and high, was given the name the Spion Kop. As a Liverpool supporter I felt that I was making a pilgrimage.

However, the point of my story is this. On top of this rugged and distant outcrop soon afterwards the British, ever keen to celebrate their heroes, put up memorials to those who had died from their Liverpool regiments. They are all listed and it is moving. However, what was forgotten and not acknowledged was that these white soldiers were supported by large numbers of Indians acting as stretcher bearers and water carriers. Many of them died, but there was no memorial to them. The honest, tough Liverpool soldiers received a fitting monument, but perhaps it was not considered that these Indians would have ‘understood or appreciated’ such a memorial. Or perhaps worse, it was thought quite simply that the life of an Indian was not worth as much as a white man and that it would have insulted the soldiers to commemorate the Indians in a like manner.

Anyway, whatever the original thinking was, it was fitting that fairly recently (within the last 20 years or so) this wrong was put right and there does now exist a memorial to those Indians who died at Spion Kop and a tribute to the bravery of all the Indians who were involved, including, remarkably, a young stretcher-bearer called Mohandas K. Gandhi. Incidentally Winston Churchill was also there, working as a journalist. It is extraordinary that two of the giants of the 20th century were present at what was, in the bigger scheme of things, a minor skirmish.

It is never too late to right the wrongs of the past. The conviction of a police officer doesn’t change the past, but it does send a message to the future. And the building of memorials, even at a much later date, does also help to address the prejudices of the past and help us to look forward to a better and more just future.

I remember Thursday 12th March 2020 very well. The Covid crisis was escalating and there was talk of schools being closed before the end of term. One or two pupils were even wearing masks, but we told them not to be so silly and to take them off at once. Assuming that any announcement of school closures would be made with a few days’ notice, I spoke in chapel that morning to allay speculation. I boldly stated that we were fully focused on getting on with things, there was no imminent threat of schools being closed and any such decision would be made in a way that gave plenty of notice to everyone of what was to come. I was decisive, I was clear, I was reassuring.

About two hours later Leo Varadkar announced that all schools were to be closed that very day.

Within a few hours the school was empty. Pupils who normally struggle to hand in an essay on time, leave their books lying around and turn up late for cloisters every day, were able, within no time at all, to book flights home to different parts of the world, book a taxi and disappear. Of course, they left most of their belongings behind and their beds were unmade, but it didn’t matter, because we were all going to be back for the beginning of the following term once the crisis had been quickly knocked on the head. No need to say farewell to those leaving in June, as that too could obviously wait.

That weekend was an exodus, as St. Patrick’s Day was upon us. The family had booked long before to go to London to watch Hamilton and we decided to go anyway. After all, the theatres were still open and if we didn’t turn up we would have wasted a lot of money. So we went, met up with the family and went to the theatre. We were chatting outside, near the theatre, about an hour before the show, when someone came out and announced that the show had been cancelled, as Boris had closed down all theatres with immediate effect. I thought that maybe the cancellation would come into effect the next day, but no, it was immediate. We stared at each other in disbelief and disappointment, went and had a nice meal (which was still just possible) and flew back to Dublin.

And so began the strangest year of any of our lives.

I can’t believe that a year has gone by. A whole year. And we are still staring at each other, but now it is in resignation and frustration. There is no more disbelief and we are so used to disappointment that it is not worth remarking on. It has been a year of waves, masks, hand-washing, asymptomaticity (is that a word?), sanitiser, PPE, PCR, PUP, social distance, red lists, traffic light systems, quarantine and designer caravans.

It has been a year when I have barely seen a single parent, which is very odd and rather sad. You may not believe me, but getting to know the parents, seeing them at functions or on the side of the pitch, chatting informally about their children and sharing the journey together, is one of the best parts of the job (honestly!). I have no doubt that parents have missed school too, getting to know who is looking after their children and also getting to know each other. It is hard to build that sense of community on which we pride ourselves, when you can’t meet people. Don’t worry, we’ll make up for that in a big way next year. Or at least, we will if we can! Please tell me we will be able to!

Anyway, happy first anniversary.

I would expect that all parents would agree that, even though they want their children to get excellent grades and take advantage of all the other opportunities here, the most important things that they can learn at St. Columba’s are values that will underpin their life, their relationships and the decisions they make. I told you last term that we were going through a process of selecting the values that we think are the most important ones in the College, as chosen by pupils and staff. So here is the big reveal, the ones that came out top and are now recognised as being the ‘College Values’:

Kindness

Compassion

Inclusion

Responsibility

Determination

OK, so they are hardly unexpected and you might think that they are so obvious that putting them in a list is rather absurd, as if we have made a new discovery. Aren’t these values that every school should be striving to instil in its pupils? Well, yes they are, but my experience is that it is much harder to talk about shared values, and hold pupils to them, if those values are not articulated in a clear way. By selecting these values it enables us to start a conversation in house, in the classroom, or in the corridor. It enables us to talk about what is important in assembly and to use them as a framework for talks in chapel. It requires staff and pupils to think intentionally about what is right and wrong, rather than just assuming that we are all in agreement about it.

Young people learn their values in three ways. The first is by what they are taught, be it in the family, the classroom or perhaps the church or equivalent. That puts great responsibility on teachers of all kinds. What are we teaching our children? The second is by watching and imitating adults and what we do. By that reckoning, all of us bear a huge responsibility, whether we are teachers or not. What example are we setting?

If we don’t get this right, either in school or in the family, children will learn in a third way, from the media, from celebrity culture, from the behaviour of those who are often very poor role models. Do we want to outsource the values that our children learn to social media influencers, be they pop stars or politicians?

I have come to the conclusion that the teaching of values in school is by far the most important thing that we do and it cannot be left to chance, or the winds and tides of social media.

I worked for a cricket season in Australia, coaching a school first team in Melbourne. Before the first match a former Australian captain came to talk to the players and I was looking forward to it, assuming that he would have some wise and gentle words of wisdom. He didn’t, and the fact that I can remember it now is telling. He told them that in order to achieve their ambitions and dreams they should not be afraid to crush the weak and push aside those in their way. It was their own life and they were not responsible for the failures of the weak. He urged them to look after themselves and to have no care for those around them. I looked around in horror at the teachers, parents and pupils, assuming that they would be equally horrified, but to my surprise they were all nodding in agreement. I wanted to scream, but I was just an Englishman on a gap year and I needed the job, so to my shame I kept quiet! But I have never forgotten his words. Teachers and parents bear a great responsibility…young people are listening!

THE VALUES OF ST. COLUMBA’S COLLEGE

The pupils and staff of the College have adopted the following 5 principles that we think best sum up the ethos and values for which Columbans should strive:

  • Kindness
      • We build others up with the words that we use and we don’t spread gossip
      • We look for opportunities to do acts of kindness for others
      • We always try to see the best in other people
  • Compassion
    • We seek to understand the lives of those around us and to ‘walk in their shoes’
    • We celebrate each other’s achievements and share their disappointments
    • We are slow to judge and quick to forgive
  • Inclusion
    • People are different from each other in many ways, but of equal value
    • We show respect to all members of the community and celebrate our common humanity
    • All should be made to feel welcome at St. Columba’s College
  • Responsibility
    • We take responsibility for our own work and our own behaviour
    • We are responsible for the well-being of our school community
    • We are responsible for the future of the world that we all live in and the sustainability of its resources
  • Determination
    • We work hard and take full advantage of our opportunities
    • We try to develop resilience and not give up at the first failure
    • We always strive to be the best version of ourselves

Matthew 7:12 – ‘So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.’

 

 

 

My focus has been largely occupied this term by how to keep the school open, how to keep it free of infection and how to stop everyone from going mad in the process. However, the other issue that has been constantly bubbling away in the background has been the College’s response to the issues of racism that were raised in May and June. We held a review, which was published, and we have committed to making sure that we learn from past mistakes. So, what has that entailed this term and are we making progress?

To begin with, I met with a group of prefects, staff and parents to look at some of the recommendations of the review. We discussed what the priorities were and how some things could be implemented. We discussed workshops and speakers and films and there was a determination to make sure that we did not just put the review in the top drawer, from where it could occasionally be pulled out and waved around for PR purposes. It was a good start and we will be meeting again next term to assess what we have done and see what more we can do.

It has, of course, not been easy to carry out a programme of talks and workshops at a time when we have been unable to meet in large numbers and there have been very few visitors to the College at all. Nevertheless, these days it is possible to do many things online and we have managed to do a few. The staff started the term with a two hour talk and question session with Dr. Ebun Joseph, who provoked plenty of discussion and addressed many relevant topics. We also had a talk from Dr. Livingstone Thompson, who had been involved in formulating the recommendations of the review in the summer. Some of the staff then led some discussion groups with the 6th form, which looked directly at how we had done things as a school and what we could do to improve things. It is encouraging to see how staff and pupils are growing in confidence when addressing issues concerning racism. The more we talk, the more we share ideas, the more articulate we will become in expressing what we think is important. This means that rather than shy away from difficult issues, we will be more comfortable at dealing with them. That has to be good.

Over the course of the term there have been a number of ‘fireside chats’ on current affairs, where race has been a recurrent theme. Dr. Roberta Hunte from Portland State University talked about the racial climate in the USA leading up to the elections, two speakers addressed the lead up to and the aftermath of the USA elections and the part that race played in that, and Lori Gatsi-Barnett, who was born in Zimbabwe, moved to the USA and has now settled in Belfast, spoke of her experiences of racism in those different environments and also about how she sees thing going right now in Ireland.

The fireside chat programme is only for older pupils and it is also voluntary, so it does not hit everyone, so, in this last week I asked Lori Gatsi-Barnett to do two live interviews with me, which were shown in all the classrooms in the schools, one for juniors and one for seniors. I thought this was excellent because we dealt with the kind of everyday questions that pupils here could relate to: what is systemic racism? What is unconscious bias? What is the origin of the ‘n’ word and why is it so offensive? What does the term ‘micro-aggression’ mean and what are good examples that we might come across? We also looked at ‘taking the knee’ and discussed the purpose behind that and whether it is effective. The feedback I have had from these two sessions has been very positive, from both staff and pupils.

One thing that struck me in the summer was the need for us as a school to be more explicit about the values that we think are important in the school. We might assume that everyone knows what the College believes in, but if it is not spelled out then we cannot refer pupils to it and hold them to a certain standard. As a result, the staff and the pupils have gone through the process of selecting the values that they think best represent the kind of school that we want to be. We have come up with a choice of five, which will be revealed next term. These values will be visible around the College and will hopefully become part of the fabric and conversation of the school. In fact, you might get bored of hearing about them!

So, we have made a start and for the rest of the year we will be building on that, not least with our week’s celebration of cultural diversity next term. We have about 38 nationalities in the College and every one of them is to be cherished and admired.

I am aware that I run the risk of counting chickens too soon, but I have to say how proud I am of how the whole College community has managed this term. Before the term began I had envisaged that at any one time there would be teachers out of school having to isolate, with lessons having to be covered by their colleagues; and pupils either at home, having tested positive or as close contacts. I had envisaged that teachers would be teaching classes that were not full, while keeping a constant eye on who was absent and how to deliver material to them and keep those absentees up to speed with their work. The fact that that has not happened is a testimony to the plans that we have put in place and the enormous hard work of staff over the holidays, the good-natured cooperation of the pupils (largely!) and the evidence, that is incontrovertible, that schools, full of lively young people, are not hotbeds of transmission.

I am someone who tends to see the glass as half full, but even I have had a fairly empty glass these past few months. Nevertheless, there is light at the end of the tunnel, as news of a variety of effective vaccines emerges, and I am optimistic that during next term we will start to see some things return to normal. Yes, I am sure we will all have to continue to take precautions for some time, but I am hopeful that we will be able to do much more than has been the case heretofore. And, as the prospect grows, it has set my mind to thinking about the things that really are most important, both personally and in College. What have I missed most and what am I most looking forward to?

Personally, the last few months have made me yearn for many things that I have always taken for granted. It is not the “spectacular” that I am looking forward to but the everyday: giving friends a hug; ordering a pint of Guinness at Taylor’s; being able to go over the water to see my family on the odd occasion (I just missed my mother’s 90th birthday); watching sport on TV with an actual crowd instead of fake noise! I wonder if it will make us all more grateful for what we have in the future, grateful for the myriad of things that give us joy and yet which we have missed over the course of this year.

At school there are many things that I miss and the prospect of their return fills me with an absurd sense of anticipation: the whole school swelling the chapel with boisterous singing…this year’s new pupils have never heard the sound of a packed chapel singing fit to burst; watching the pupils play matches; listening to our fantastic new musicians performing in the BSR…and, most strangely of all, seeing the pupils’ faces without a mask on. There are some pupils whose faces I have barely seen this year because they are always covered up. Maybe we should have a bonfire to burn our masks, while we dance around and recite incantations. OK, that is not so sensible, but the chief memory of 2020 will always be the sight of people in masks and, while they have been necessary, they are no less abhorrent for that.

I wonder what you are most looking forward to.

As I said, I am very proud of how we have coped with this year and very grateful to so many people for their hard work. I am aware that I may be premature in my musings in some ways, though it is the prospect of a return to normality that keeps us all going in these dark times and I am surely not the only one who is looking ahead to 2021 with a sense of hope.

Today, November 11th, is Remembrance Day. Traditionally, the entire school congregates in Chapel Square formally to acknowledge and remember the members of the College community who lost their lives in the World Wars of the 20th century.

This morning, a smaller than usual group of pupils and staff gathered (distanced, and wearing face coverings) for the regular commemoration of those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom, including the 96 former pupils and staff who died in the First and Second World Wars. The Warden has recorded a short video message to mark the event.

Pictured, the Senior Prefect lays the wreath. Following this, there was the two-minute silence, and then Konstantin Kühne played ‘The Last Post’ and the ‘Reveille’. The Chaplain concluded with a prayer.

I am welcoming you to St Columba’s College in unprecedented times. We return to an altered reality, where rules and social interaction are different. As Coronavirus infiltrates our lives, this is a time for us to stay close together as a school, as colleagues and as friends. As a group, we need to be united and be attentive to each other, and especially to the vulnerable amongst us and to our extended families and the wider community.

The coronavirus will continue to impact on our lives, but we should keep in mind that the problems and issues we grappled with before lockdown have not gone away, in fact, most have been exacerbated. Every day more people slip into poverty, our planet continues to get sicker and our society is becoming more divided.

Here at St Columba’s, I believe we can make a difference, and we should all welcome the recent external review of racism as the first step towards positive change. I hope you will all join me in making a commitment to embrace the changes proposed in this review, but also to go further and to stand up against all forms of discrimination and prejudice. Let us do this with open hearts and a willingness to see what we can do individually, and as a community, to make Columba’s a place we are proud to call our school, and a microcosm of the world we want to live in.

This year, more than any other, it’s imperative at St Columba’s that we are kind to each other, that we are inclusive, that we value and enjoy each other’s company and make the most of the year ahead.

St Columba’s in 2020 can be a school at the forefront of change in Ireland, and I am very proud to be invited to lead you on this exciting journey.

Éile Ní Chíanáin, Senior Prefect 2020 / 2021

We are alive and well in spite of the times, determined to carry on and enjoy ourselves. Please do share this video with any friends who may be looking at schools for their children at the moment.

August 21st 2020

If you are not willing to keep learning then it is time to give up. I have learned a lot in the last few weeks. At the start of June the school was subject to a number of allegations of racism from former and present pupils and it was obviously a difficult time. I am very proud of the level of pastoral care at the College and it was not easy to have to confront the evidence that, when it came to dealing with matters of racism, the College had a lot to learn. We immediately set up an independent review into how we had done things in the past, in order to make recommendations for the future. That process has been a challenging one, both for the College and for me personally.

I want to share with you three things in particular that I have learned through this.

The first is that I thought I understood racism. I used to run an all-black school in South Africa, a society still largely shaped by the monster of Apartheid. The legacy of that racist ideology is easy for all to see. Too easy perhaps, as South Africa stands as the most unequal country in the world. The current debate, and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, has exploded since the death of George Floyd, as if black people are saying ‘enough is enough.’ The foundations of the USA were built on racism and those effects remain to this day. We can all be experts on the glaring injustices that are evident in South Africa or the USA and we will have strong opinions about them. It can be reassuring to look at ‘that racism over there.’ However, I have learned that it is much harder to spot the issues of racism that might be carrying on under one’s nose, the subtle, undermining and corrosive instances that wear people down and sap their self-esteem. That requires a new way of looking at things, honest listening and a commitment to not ignoring the ‘micro-aggressions’ that are the lived experience of many black people in this country.

Secondly, I realise how inadequate the current school curriculum is to teach young people about the history of racism. Again, I have made myself very conversant in the history of colonialism and in particular the part my country, the United Kingdom, played in that extraordinary period of history. The British History curriculum is hot on the Tudors and on 20th Century dictators, but there is nothing concerning Empire and its legacy. However, I have come to realise that the modern world is impossible to understand without an understanding of colonialism. The reason that my country is full of immigrant communities is because of Empire. Or, to put it as others have, ‘we are over here because you were over there.’ This summer I read Black and British by the British Nigerian historian David Olusoga. It was challenging and uncomfortable and made me realise, similar to my first point, that it is one thing to be an expert in the problems of other countries, but another to know the history of one’s own country. I knew everything about Apartheid and a fair bit about the history of race in the USA. To my shame, I knew nothing about the history of black communities in my own country, let alone in Ireland. In both Ireland and the UK, for sure, there is a need to adapt the curriculum to educate young people in such matters. And, as adults, we are all responsible for informing ourselves about why things are as they are and I would recommend everyone to read up on it. Don’t parrot the opinions of other people…develop your own opinions through reading and study.

Thirdly, I have learned about the importance of creating a culture within a school in which young people feel comfortable to talk about their experiences. If we have failed to provide that sort of environment then that is my fault…and it is my responsibility to do something about it. There is always a danger that pupils keep things bottled up inside themselves until there is a crisis, rather than feeling free to express themselves and air their frustrations. It is no good talking about it without intentionally creating the conditions for such honesty to flourish. That is one of the big challenges for me personally this coming year.

I hope that we will be a better school at the end of this process than we were at the beginning. No one likes to be shown up and admit shortcomings, but, as I often say to the pupils who have misbehaved and been brought into my office, making a mistake is not the end of the world…how you respond is what is important. I am determined that we as a school respond in such a way that we can set an example to other schools of how to build a community in which everyone feels welcomed and cherished.

Mark Boobbyer.

 

 

Last Wednesday the Warden, Mark Boobbyer, interviewed Rajmohan Gandhi (grandson of Mahatma Gandhi) via Google Meet.  In a wide-ranging and fascinating interview, Mr Gandhi speaks of his memories of his grandfather and the lessons he can still teach us about navigating the complex world of the 21st century. The full video is available here but below is a short clip on Rajmohan Gandhi’s advice on leadership for the pupils of St. Columba’s College.

Rajmohan Gandhi is a biographer and a research professor at the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Illinois. In the photograph below, Rajmohan is pictured with his grandfather and sister Tara in New Delhi in 1942.

Again, the full interview is available to view here.

From the Warden: 10th May 2020

So, there are not going to be any Leaving Certificate exams this year. It is probably the right course of action, but I cannot bring myself to feel any satisfaction about the cancellation, even if it simplifies my summer and that of all our teachers. It does mean that once this term ends and we have tried to interpret the criteria for awarding Leaving Cert grades, we can put it to bed and not have to spend an extra couple of months keeping the 6th form bubbling along until the exams finally begin at the end of July. I won’t have to fret about whether our overseas pupils will be able to get back into the country to sit the exams. We will not have to administer the exams right the way through August and that means we might actually get a holiday. Not that anyone can go anywhere, of course. Overall then, for the staff it is probably a relief.

However, schools are about young people and that is why I am not feeling satisfied. The last couple of months have been hugely stressful for the 6th Form, not knowing whether they are coming or going. I am sure there is a sense of relief that there is at least a clear course of action, but feelings will definitely be mixed. Imagine spending your whole secondary schooling psyching yourself up for the famous Leaving Cert, that semi-mythical beast that lurks as a rite of passage to devour every teenager in Ireland. Your siblings have done it, your parents did it, even your grandparents. People swap stories about it: the stress, the all-nighters, the celebrations when they finished and the results. You may be dreading it, but there is also a feeling of excitement, the facing of a necessary evil, via which one will burst forth into adulthood. Then suddenly it is snatched away. There has to be a feeling of anti-climax. The butterfly emerges from the chrysalis without that last desperate struggle to break free. Yes, it is a relief, but it doesn’t feel quite right.

These 6th Formers will always be the ones who never got to sit their final exams. Yes, they will get the results, and those results will be as fair as possible, but they will be the ones who never got to finish school properly. They won’t have the satisfaction of walking out of their final exam and burning their Maths notes. Well I guess they can still burn them, but it won’t have that same sense of catharsis. They have been cheated, not by the school, or by politicians, but by fate. That is why I cannot feel any satisfaction.

But then again, I wonder whether I am forgetting what true education is all about and why I got into teaching in the first place. I believe very strongly that terminal exam results, while necessary, are an appalling yardstick for measuring the worth of anyone, and certainly not that of a young person emerging from school after 13 years of education. Does all that time in school really come down to a piece of paper with a few numbers on it? That flies in the face of everything that I believe is the purpose of education. To think I nearly forgot myself. Education is about building character. It is about who you are becoming and the values on which you choose to build your life.  And so I am going to look at things differently.

I want to say this to my 6th Formers, now, in writing, in case it doesn’t come across very well when I try and articulate it in some impersonal virtual assembly later in the week. ‘You did finish school properly. You finished properly, because, over the course of the last few years at St. Columba’s, you bought into the values of the College and you have turned into deeply caring and thoughtful young people. You have had a fantastic and privileged education in many ways, but you have taken an interest in the world around you and become compassionate and humble. You have celebrated the strong, but you have also looked after and cherished the weak, which is a wonderful thing to say about any group of people. I know you want to be successful (whatever that really means) but you also want do good and generous things with your lives. I know that because I have talked with you. You are very good company, with a great sense of humour, and I have always enjoyed spending time with you. I don’t need a piece of paper to tell me what I already know…that you are a group of young adults of whom I and the College can be very proud. Proud of who you are, regardless of your ‘results.’ The chrysalis was not the Leaving Certificate, but the whole of your education. And you have emerged with dazzling wings.’

 

 

The Warden is sending a letter to Sixth Form, preparing for their Leaving Certificate. Here it is:

Dear 6th Formers

I hope this letter finds you in decent spirits. It is very hard to maintain morale at this time and I hope you are managing to stay positive.

Let me start by saying how much I and all the staff here miss you all at the moment. Yes, it is holiday time right now, but it has already been a while since you all left and the prospect of an extended break from school is really depressing. The school grounds can feel very peaceful in holiday time but it doesn’t feel like that right now…instead it just feels very empty.

I am sure that you are following the various pronouncements from the Irish government every day. As things stand there is a determination to proceed with the Leaving Certificate exams in June, but how realistic that is I don’t know. It may just be bravado, although one cannot rule out the possibility that in two months’ time the worst will be over and that conditions will allow you to come in each day for exams. There are arguments from some saying that it would be unfair to make you sit exams in the present environment, while there are others who say it would be unfair to deprive you of the opportunity to sit those exams. I don’t know who is right, but we have to be prepared for either eventuality.

What I can say with certainty is that the College will be here to support you fully through whatever happens. If exams need to be sat, then we will make sure that, if you live a long way away, or even abroad, and we are not allowed to accommodate you in school, the wider Columban community will help out in every way possible. We will do everything that we possibly can to ensure that you end up with the grades that you deserve and get into the courses at the universities on which you have set your hearts. I know how unsettling and stressful it must be for you, having to carry on with your revision, while being unsure as to whether the exams are actually going to take place or not.

This is Easter week and, although my biblical interpretation may be a bit contrived, it could be seen to mirror the current situation. On Palm Sunday Jesus rides into Jerusalem, acclaimed by the crowds, who hail him as the king. By Thursday he has been deserted by everyone and betrayed by a close friend and everything looks as dark as it can be. On Friday Jesus dies on the cross, his disciples flee and he is mocked and despised by passers-by. However, that is not the end of the story and on Sunday he rises from the dead, the culmination of the Christian story.

You may or may not be very religious but you will still agree it feels now like we are going through a very dark time. The excitement of the approaching summer term, with its sunny weather, sports day, prize-giving, graduation and emotional farewells to friends, has given way to a sense of betrayal and huge anti-climax. I imagine that that is how you feel. However, I do believe that we will get through it, as a College and as individuals. I can tell you now that, if we are not able to have a graduation ceremony in late May, we will still find an opportunity, when the time is right, to invite you all back to the College to celebrate your time here and to say goodbye in a fitting manner.

On Sunday we will be recording a short Easter service in chapel. Please do listen to it and join in where you can. In the meantime take care of yourselves and support each other in every way you can.

Best wishes,

The Warden.

 

 

The Warden’s first blog-post of 2020 is a personal one:

16th January 2020

I want to tell you about Brian. He was a great man and he died last Sunday, so he has been on my mind all week.

Brian du Toit was the estate manager at Tiger Kloof, the school I used to run in South Africa (above the picture is of the St Columba’s expedition there in 2018). It sits on the edge of the Kalahari Desert just outside a town called Vryburg, which you never go to unless you are heading north to Botswana or west to Namibia. The missionaries built it there 120 years ago because it sits astride Cecil Rhodes’ Cape to Cairo railway, which made it accessible to the children of the Batswana elite, coming down from the north. It became one of South Africa’s greatest African schools, educating the first two presidents of Botswana and all but one of its first cabinet. Desmond Tutu’s mother was a girl there and so was Mama Ruth Mompati, Nelson Mandela’s secretary and head of the ANC women in exile. She was on the board until she died in 2015.

In 1953 the South African apartheid government passed the Bantu Education Act, making it illegal to teach academic subjects to black children. The missionaries pulled out rather than compromise and the school was passed over to the local authority, who quickly ran it into the ground. The final ignominy came when the area in which the school lies was declared ‘Whites only’ in the Group Areas Act. All non-whites were forced to leave, the school was abandoned and the buildings and land sold off to a white farmer. He was given instructions by Prime Minister Verwoerd to destroy all the buildings and he started to do so before stopping. Nevertheless the beautiful buildings, built by the missionaries from the hard rock hewn out of the quarry in the kloof (valley) below the school, were left to rot or used as store houses and barns for livestock. It remained abandoned for 35 years.

David Matthews was a headmaster in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, but he lived on the Garden Route on the southern coast of South Africa. His route north took him past Tiger Kloof and he always used to wonder at the beautiful church and dining hall that sat by the side of the road two hours from the Botswanan border. He asked questions and learned the history of the buildings, of the school that had once thrived and sent forth leaders into Botswana and into the struggle for liberation in South Africa. After Nelson Mandela was released from jail in 1990 he got together a group of Old Tigers, raised some money and set to work rebuilding and restoring the school. Before the school reopened in 1995 he moved on site into the old principal’s house to oversee the work. It was a mammoth task and he needed someone to be in charge of the daunting physical work, so he hired someone, who moved into the house with him a year or two before the school reopened. That man was Brian.

Brian knew every inch of Tiger Kloof and he personally oversaw the restoration or building of every almost building on the site. It is a work that still continues to this day. He loved a project, something to get his teeth into, and his standards of workmanship were high. He kept his large team of men up to the same standard and was tough on them when they cut corners. But he was fiercely loyal to them too and they respected him for it. He didn’t have favourites and he treated everyone the same, myself included. Occasionally he felt that I had not been fair to his crew and he was never afraid to let me know, respectfully but directly…he usually had a point! He was not looking for favours, just for fairness. I admired him greatly for it. If David Matthews was the Nehemiah, who had the vision to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls and repair the breaches, Brian was his right hand man who put words into deeds. He was not a man of speeches but rather someone who was happiest doing a job and doing it well, with his team around him.

South Africa is a country of contradictions and it is hard to understand if you haven’t lived there. As a ‘coloured’ (mixed race) South African, he had grown up with a love of rugby. However, like most non-whites, he could not bring himself to support the Springboks during the apartheid years and supported the All Blacks instead. Old habits die hard and to his dying day he could not bring himself to support the Bokke…he was even supporting England in the World Cup Final last year

By the way David Matthews, the man with the vision to reopen Tiger Kloof, did his teacher training in Dublin and spent a year doing his placement at a quaint little boarding school on the edge of the Dublin Hills, none other than St. Columba’s College.

Go well Brian. You were an example to everyone of faithfulness, dedication and loyalty. You deserve a rest. May you rest in peace and rise in glory.

I have spoken a lot about service over the last three years and about how to develop an ethos of service amongst our pupils. I am not going to repeat myself now. What I have perhaps spoken about less is leadership, which is actually the other side of the same coin. It is certainly not contradictory or paradoxical to talk about service and leadership in the same breath, because the best leaders are also servants, prepared to sacrifice on behalf of their followers and determined to get the best out of other people. A good leader should not be afraid to empower others, to give opportunities to them and enjoy seeing them grow in confidence and stature. A poor leader will happily see his or her followers stay dependant on the boss and wait for instructions. Ultimately that style of leadership saps initiative and leads to resentment. Of course, giving people responsibility is risky, because they might fail, but there is nothing wrong with failure, as long as you pick yourself up, dust yourself down and learn from it.

When it comes to developing leaders I am thinking right now of the pupils, rather than the staff. How do we help our pupils to become leaders, to take initiative, to be prepared to stand up and not be afraid to fall down? My concern is that when it comes to choosing prefects, for example, those who will lead the pupil body in their final year, we go on hunches and pick those who we think will be good role models, but we have given them precious little in the way of actual training, or encouraged them to stretch themselves prior to their final year. Surely leadership training should not be something that begins in the 6th form, or at the end of the 5th form, but something, a bit like service, that we try and inculcate into our pupils from the 1st form onwards.

What do I actually mean by leadership, particularly in the school context? Well, let’s examine that by looking at what an aspiring young leader at school might look like, divided into being and doing, who they are first and what they do second:

So who are they?

  • They are prepared to stand up for others and to speak out when they see something that they think is wrong;
  • They are not easily influenced by the crowd or their peer group;
  • They don’t mind being a little bit different, because they are thinking about the bigger picture of who they want to become rather than being popular right now;
  • They lead when others are not looking, not just to get attention.

And what might they do?

  • They might volunteer to run or help run activities;
  • They might act as mentors for younger or new pupils;
  • They might put their hand up for jobs that are not very glamorous;
  • They will look out for those around them who are struggling and not be afraid to bring it to the attention of the appropriate people;
  • They might have a quiet word with someone who they think is behaving poorly or making someone’s life unpleasant;
  • They will take on tasks or responsibilities that stretch them, rather than always doing things with which they are comfortable.

And what should the teaching staff do?

  • Allow pupils, right from the earliest years, to take responsibility and then support them…and praise them and lift them up when they fall;
  • Encourage them to take initiative, rather than wait for a member of staff to suggest something.

These are just some initial thoughts and I am sure that it would be easy to flesh them out a lot more. Although prefects in the 6th form are necessary, actually all 6th formers should be leaders and, in fact, all pupils should be encouraged to see themselves as leaders, whatever year they are in. I want to see how we can do that better than we have done, so be prepared for me to be speaking a lot about leadership in the months to come.

I feel challenged by young people around the world marching in protest against world governments failing to take action to prevent or counter the environmental catastrophe that we are facing. I let pupils in our Transition Year go, with their parents’ permission, drawing the line there, since gathering written permission from parents at the last minute in a boarding school is potentially problematic. Whether they felt strongly about the issue or merely wanted a day off school, is not for me to judge but it seems to have been a big event and it will certainly have attracted the attention of politicians. Let’s hope they have the courage to act. Momentum is building and it is exciting to see young people at the heart of such a powerful and positive movement.

In reality, I do have a problem with the idea of pupils missing school to make such a protest because disrupting education is rarely the right thing to do, but if those in government sit up and take notice it may not be a bad thing. However, what our own pupils need to understand is that marching and waving banners is actually the easy bit because it places the responsibility on other people to affect change. The harder challenge is for us all to make the changes in our own lives and in our own community, which will, slowly but surely, start to make a difference right here at St. Columba’s College. We cannot wait for politicians to legislate.

Yesterday in assembly I threw out a challenge to the pupils, namely that they, as a pupil body, should come up with a pledge, a manifesto, if you like, something concrete and practical, as to how we can make a difference right here in our own backyard. It might be about recycling, electricity, litter, water, traffic, clothing, food. We all like the idea of making a difference until it affects what we put on our plates, don’t we? We would prefer, I suspect, to believe that it is up to others, to politicians, to Greta Thunberg, to fight the battle, to address the United Nations, while we stand in the wings and applaud. But ask us to make personal sacrifices for the future of our planet…that is another thing altogether!

Personally, I have started to think about these things a lot more. I remember when I was at school and we had a visiting speaker on the strange topic of ‘ecology.’ He had long hair and an earring (we all had crewcuts and tight trousers and jackets) and we sneered at him and thought he was a bit of a weirdo. He spoke about the need to live sustainably and to look after the resources of the planet and it made a lot of sense, but we were all too cool to admit it to each other. Shame on us, but rather than engage with him and take him seriously we preferred to laugh at him. I don’t think anyone is laughing any more.