Reading and a feeling of guilt

George J.N. Whitfield, nicknamed “George” by all the boys at Hampton Grammar School, was a no-nonsense authoritarian educator — a real establishment character who inspired fear and respect.  I have a lot of memories of him, but I don’t remember him ever saying a word to me personally in the whole of the time I was there.  When he left to become Secretary for Education at the Church of England, he said, in his parting speech, “Hampton will always be my school.” Somehow, although not all my memories of Hampton are negative, I never had the feeling it was my school.  It was his.

I will write later about how I feigned illness in my first term there, aged 11,  to the extent that I fooled every doctor that dealt with my case, ending up having an exploratory abdominal operation and being off school for about six weeks.  Suffice it to say for now that I was never able to articulate my discomfort with the school while I was there, and carried with me for all the seven years I was a Hamptonian a vague feeling that there was something wrong with me, not with the school.  Hampton was not where I first learned to feel guilty about myself, but it certainly did a good job of reinforcing such feelings.

Today I am going to be writing comments and a summary for a chapter I am reading from Japan’s soccer team captain Makoto Hasebe’s book on leadership, Kokoro wo soreru.  It feels very natural for me now to read something and then write about it as a way of helping myself to organize my thoughts and have notes that can serve me in further writing.  This is no doubt something that many professional writers and academics find useful to do, and George was obviously eager for Hamptonians to swell the ranks of academia.

Around the third or fourth form — when I was somewhere from 13 to 15 — George  paid our class (Form 3 Latin B or 4 Latin B) one of his occasional special visits.  He appeared in the doorway and we all, as always, stood up.  He then took his seat at the teacher’s desk and began to talk to us. Our teacher, whose lesson was suspended for the duration of this meeting, respectfully remained standing.

George had come to announce that from now on we would each have a special notebook in which we would record every book that we had read — outside of our prescribed classwork reading — and write down some thoughts about it.  He told us that he would collect these notebooks from time to time to see what we were reading , and to make sure that we were writing about this reading.  I think we were asked to hand in the notebooks once or twice, but the project seemed to peter out and I never received any feedback — good or bad — on the dutiful but unenthusiastic efforts I had made to engage with the project.  I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who wasn’t enjoying the task and who, sensing not only that  it wasn’t going to affect our grades or “marks” but that there was also not going to be retribution, eventually stopped making any effort to do it.  All I remember was a vague feeling of guilt and inadequacy: I wasn’t meeting the high and noble expectations of the school.

Whatever George was trying to do here wasn’t successful.  Rather than help us to associate reading with a feeling of fun, discovery and self-empowerment, he had made it into a chore: something we had to do for the powers above.  Educationally, it would have been more healthy if he had confessed that his well-intentioned project hadn’t worked (assuming that he understood this to be the case).  If he had let us see that even he had weaknesses and could make mistakes, perhaps the effect would have been to encourage us to read, and there would have been no implicit invitation to me or anyone else to further add to the guilt and inadequacy that I for one was already burdened by.

In his “my school” farewell speech, given during his final morning assembly, George said he would be standing in the entrance hall to the school after assembly, and he invited any boy who wanted to do so to come and speak with him.  I remember a vague feeling of guilt as I watched one of my classmates, a guy called David Lewis, go up to him. I felt more comfortable slinking away. Perhaps David was simply a little more mature and less complexed than I was. It would be nice to see him again and ask if he remembers this moment and how he felt about it…


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