Yesterday we were walking through the gardens of a National Trust property, a rare Elizabethan treat, something you find only in England, and quite special even here. Walking past a couple, I noticed their small boy climb up an ornate pedestal carved out of the local stone by an expert stonemason over four hundred years ago.
“Oh, I wouldn’t climb that, it might break,” I said in that gentle but firm voice one uses for children of his age. He instantly dropped to the ground and thankfully none of the elaborately carved oak leaves spilling over the urn went with him. And the child was lucky, for neither did the heavy faux-vase, easily twice his weight, tip over and crush him. Had he had even a scratch, the parents would probably have taken great pleasure in suing the N.T., which is a well loved charity supported by nearly five million Brits.
The mother instantly bent down and spoke quietly to her child, but the husband, a big man with a trimmed beard, glared at me.
“These things are rare, ancient and fragile,” I said in a jokey tone, smiling. He continued to glower. I smiled, but his stance, tall, assertive, his face set, eyes not shifting from me, was challenging. I heard myself blurt out, “Three’s no need to be aggressive.”
The man’s expression shifted. He was probably not used to being challenged. “I wasn’t.”
“Then why scowl?” and walked on, but he kept frowning at me, an audacious man walking with a crutch.
My wife said any criticism of his child was aimed at him. It reminded me of my years of teaching - parents often scolded us because we told off their disruptive children.
I briefly taught geography in a square-mile of London’s East End renowned for its gangster culture. Unusually, instead of the teenagers shifting from class to class, at the end of each period we teachers moved about, locking ourselves in and out of sections of corridor, for the kids had proven to be disruptive, fighting one another, causing mini-riots. In one particularly difficult class, two girls refused to stop doing one another’s hair when I started teaching. I politely asked them to stop. They ignored me. This is an affront teachers hate and, insuring I didn’t get annoyed, I asked them if they wished to learn anything. In a sense, it was the wrong question for the entire class erupted, questioning me on the spurious value of education. Rising to the challenge, I kept up and even had the worst of them saying to one another, “This is great fun!” It was - we were dealing with issues they were annoyed about and the lesson sped past.
However, the next week the same girls continued to dress each other’s hair and I had to once again ask them to stop. One of them bellowed at me, ran to the open window and leapt out, shouting that she was fetching her father. The class went silent and I began my work, drawing cartoons on the blackboard to make the topic more digestible. Fifteen minutes later, I heard the closest section of corridor being unlocked and then my own locked door being opened. Behind the frame of a burly man, the squirming Headmaster. The gangster walked over, grasped my belt and lifted me off the ground. Calmly looking me in the eye, he sneered, “Anything you say to my daughter is said to me. OK?”
Dropping me, he sauntered out. The Head quickly locked my door. The class had been silent throughout and one of them said, “Sir, don’t mess with him or any of his family.” I took this as a compliment, they were warning me. Cycling home through the local streets that evening, I spotted the gangster and nodded. He winked, his daughter smiled. The incident wasn’t personal. I, a teacher, represented all they stood against. He and his family were London royalty, untouchable.
But we need to fit in to a certain extent and there are rules we ought to hand on to our children, no matter how much we dislike what humanity is doing to the planet. One of the most basic being respect, for others, for the planet, for treasured items from the past. Respect opens us up to empathy. OK, we may not agree with our neighbour or with all that society stands for, but we fit in or spend our lives as rebels. I stand somewhere between these two points - a rebel who knows we can only change things from within. A friend who has worked his entire working-life to protect coral reefs said any changes imposed from outside are useless. People need to own them. Let’s create a better future by owning respect and empathy.