“Intimate” discussions with George


A google search of “George Whitfield”  and “Hampton Grammar School” will yield a number of colorful and thoughtful anecdotes about my old headmaster, but I am surprised not to find more.  As headmasters go, he was a big hitter.

Without his ever speaking a personal word to me in six years (More on George here) the calls to battle  of this Commodore in the Noble Navy of Truth contain in concentrated form the spirit of an approach to education that wrapped me in layers of discouragement and disempowerment, a binding that it has taken me decades — almost an entire career in education — to figure out how to fully unravel.

kite-tailThe published and forthcoming posts on George Whitfield in this blog — and many of those on other aspects of life at Hampton Grammar School — document the removal of one of the strands of cloth used in my own educational mummification. My experience at Hampton is a narrow band that I am particularly happy to now see waving in the wind, and I’m attaching it here as a tail to the stringless high-dancing homing kite that is my life.* “Free at last!”

One of the privileges of being a member of the Sixth Form, a young man at the gates of adulthood, was to be able to sit once a week, alongside all the other 240 or so sixth formers in the front seats of the school Hall for a two-period discussion with the Headmaster. George’s idea, I think, was that we needed to be stimulated, nurtured and guided by his intellect and moral rectitude, through discussion of a wide range of topics that he would invite us to suggest to him a few days before each week’s discussion.  This was an enriching opportunity for us to go beyond the examination-focused study of the three Advanced Level GCE** subjects which we had each chosen from a range of traditional “arts” or “science” subjects.

I found much of what we talked about actually quite interesting and even refreshing sometimes, because George was a thoughtful and intelligent man, and because he was ready to talk to us in a way that showed more about him than we were able to see in morning assemblies. But I never connected with him as a human being.

These sessions weren’t actually “discussions.”  I’ve characterized them as such because I think that is how he himself described them. In fact they were 80-minute monologues,  two-way discussions only in the sense that the thinking aloud that George shared with us was based on the questions that he found in the letter box in his office door: those that he deemed appropriate for the coming session.

It may have happened, but I do not remember any of the boys ever speaking during these sessions.  Nor do I remember any eye contact that made me feel he was talking to me, even when he once spent a long time discussing a question from me.  I myself often speak to large groups of people, and always know, from people’s eyes and expressions, that there are people with whom I am communicating on deeply personal levels, often perhaps at a non- or trans-verbal level.  I sense myself subtly acknowledging individuals too.  To acknowledge individuals while speaking to a group was not George’s style, as I remember it, though I think he was very good at communicating fear and transferring guilt to individuals en masse, particularly during his school assembly addresses.

At some point during my Lower Sixth year I remember one of several periods of what would now probably be diagnosed as depression, when I decided to place a question in George’s letter box. I had been shuffling through each moment of my life for three weeks or so, under an adolescent cloud of doubt about the worth of anything that I was doing.  Perhaps George could say something about this in the next discussion session.  Perhaps his answering my question would bestow value on my life.

The note I placed in the letter box was very close to, if not exactly these words: “Can you prove to me that human effort is not futile and ridiculous?” For a few days after the point of no return, when I had slipped the question into George’s letter box, I had felt slightly apprehensive. I feared he might disapprove of my question and rebuke me for it.  So when he said, at the beginning of the next session, that he was actually going to seriously address it, my heart began to pound hard and fast.

George had obviously given time and careful thought to my question.  His approach was to  answer it, somewhat in the manner of a model examination essay, by focusing on my use of the word “prove” and carefully considering different meanings of the word “proof.”  He talked about three kinds of proof: scientific, logical and mathematical. I didn’t quite understand the difference between the latter two in particular, but his conclusion was that the topic of my question could not be addressed as a matter that could be proven or disproven.  While impeccably addressing the words he was failing to respond at all to the heart of the question, which would have been better expressed as: “Everything that I am trying to do is striking me as meaningless and of no value.  Can you help me?”

Now I understand that he didn’t know — ordained man of God though he was — either how to recognize or how to answer a question from a troubled heart. As an educator and priest he should have been able to sense the desperation behind the words.  Had he been able to do so he might have (helpfully) referred me to a psychological counsellor, or at least tried to talk to me from the heart about his Christian faith.

Here are a couple of the questions I would ask him if I now had a chance to go back to that school Hall in 1967.

  1. Sir, are you happy with your life and at peace with yourself?
  2. If you are, why is it that when I am around you I always feel afraid instead of happy?

And I would find it natural for him to to be able to answer these questions honestly, on the spot, as one human being to another, though I would nevertheless show him respect by submitting them in advance as requested.

Perhaps, in the end, he was just trying to show us what it is to be a perfect schoolboy, by submitting to us a perfect homework assignment that he had worked on for a couple of days.   Poor man. What he must have gone through in his education!

*Reminds me of my first American grade readers:  “Look! See Jack’s kite.”  Now it’s “See Kevin’s kite.”
** General Certificate of Education

One thought on ““Intimate” discussions with George

  1. I always assumed he felt the need to compensate for his smaller-than-average physical stature by never showing any hint of sensitivity that might be construed as weakness. My tai chi teacher was once asked by the great (though short) Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky for private lessons. John told him that a prerequisite of serious study would be an honest attempt to relinquish his ego. GD frankly admitted he would find that impossible, having over so many years worked ceaselessly to build an impenetrable ego in order to command unruly orchestras. My human contacts with Whitfield were few. There was an occasion where I had to seek his permission to attend the funeral of a boy I had been very fond of and who had died on his motorcycle on the way to school. I found GW’s first words startling: “I didn’t know he was your friend.” That was about it. I also recall a couple of very awkward visits to his home (!) with a small group of carol singers at Christmas. We would do the rounds of elderly folk living on their own and had a jolly time. Then came the downer with the unavoidable visit to GW. His wife was friendly and welcoming but he remained the same gritty person we saw at school, trying but failing to force out a half-smile through clenched jaws.

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