At the end of Term, Head Mr Jenkinson delivered the following assembly to all pupils at the Senior School:
“It’s important for all of us that we take a moment on this, the last day of our Autumn Term, just to pause, reflect, and recognise how much we have learned, experienced, and achieved in the past four months. If we cast our minds back to when we were in this very hall at the start of September, having just come back from the summer vacation and record-breaking temperatures, the days of Christmas trees, frost, and carols felt a very long way away, and not one of us knew what the months ahead would bring.
Those four months have passed, and I suggest that for most of us some moments will have been as anticipated, some moments will have been lovely surprises with joyful memories, and some moments may have been unexpected with painful or sad memories. Such is life. There are ups. There are downs. And nothing is ever certain.
But when we do look back; and it is traditional at the end of year also to review what has passed as the New Year arrives; we can choose what we focus on. A balance is always healthy, I would suggest. We acknowledge and accept any periods of difficulty, and we are also grateful for the good times, the smiles, the laughter, the fun, and the happy memories.
And gratitude is my theme and message for this Christmas assembly.
Although I have just said that nothing in life is certain, I do feel fairly confident that every single person in this room, between waking up and actually stepping foot into school, did one thing in common. And you may be sitting there, thinking quickly ahead of me. Yes, each one of us will have taken a breath. Each one of us will have swallowed. Each one of us will have blinked. But I don’t mean like that. I feel confident in saying that each one of us will have pressed something this morning. An alarm button. A light switch. A shower control. A mobile phone screen. A television remote. A car key. And each one of us will have expected that, on pressing whatever we pressed, something would then happen. Just like that. Sound. Light. Power. Water. Warmth. Access. Movement. And I suspect that we all took it for granted and that not one of us, myself included, actually stopped for a second after we had pressed the button, and thought: “Thank you. I am so grateful that worked.”
And for some of you right now, I wonder if you’re thinking: “Seriously? I am not going to say ‘Thank You’ every time I turn my phone on. Mind you, I’ll certainly complain loudly if my phone doesn’t work, if Netflix doesn’t come on immediately, or if I don’t get lovely hot water from the tap when I turn it! But saying ‘Thank You’ in my head? This is a bit too mindful for my liking. You can tell the Head is getting older.”
Indeed. We all are. And with increasing age comes increasing wisdom.
Now. Let me share a couple of reference points with you. The very first time I visited Shanghai in China, before I started working there, it was a purple day. If it had been a green day, it would have meant that the air quality App on my phone would have had a green circle, and I could have breathed in the outdoor air and it would have served my lungs well, with a healthy mixture of nitrogen and oxygen. But it was a purple day for air quality, which is at the other end of the pollution spectrum. When I lived here, in the UK, I was aware of discussions around air pollution and I knew that walking along the streets of London, for example, was a different olfactory experience to being on the beach by the brisk Irish sea. But that first experience in Shanghai city centre was unlike anything I had ever known before, or could possibly have imagined. I could see the pollution in the air, creating a mist around any building as I looked up or around. My eyes prickled and watered. I could taste the pollution; there was a bitterness in my mouth and an odd dryness when I swallowed. And I could certainly smell it. There was a burning, tingling sensation every time I took a breath, and my body instinctively was sending me messages that I was doing myself harm, and that I needed to get off the High Street, to go underground or inside, where there was an air filtration system. I did. And I remember that moment when I was able, once again, to take a deep breath and it felt ok. And I was grateful. That was the first time in my life that I have ever said ‘Thank You’ in my head for being able to take a breath of clean air. But I learned in that moment, never again to take the air that I breathe for granted.
The school that I was Head of in Shanghai had air filtration, so we were ok on purple days, as long as everyone remained inside and all windows were tightly closed. The school had not always had air filters, and some staff there could remember when they would look down the science corridor and not be able to see the classroom at the other end, because it was obscured by polluted fog, indoors.
Here in Cheshire, we are fortunate to be surrounded by stunningly beautiful countryside and so many trees; which are so vitally important for enabling us to have pure air to breathe. So, I am also grateful for the trees. Quite seriously.
My second point of reference is the global pandemic, which we all know started in 2020 and will form a sizeable chapter in all history books of the human race for centuries to come. Each one of us here can remember that, before the pandemic, if we were running short of milk or bread at home, we could so easily pop out to a local store and expect that there would be a full choice of cartons or loaves on the shelf, without any problem. But it was only last December, there were still articles being reported that family and social gatherings may have to be restricted, and 12 months prior to that, buying something from an actual store involved: queueing, frequent hand-sanitisation, a face mask and steamed up glasses, one-way systems, protection screens, physical distance from any other living being, and the reality that the product we wanted to buy was simply not there on the shelf – unavailable, out of stock.
Our situation seems to have eased to some extent at the moment, but no longer do I take supermarkets for granted. If I go now, and they have the specific product I am looking for, and the price is still reasonably affordable, I am grateful. In my own head, I say ‘Thank You’. Because I understand what it is not to have that.
So, this Christmas, let us all check our gratitude. Our world has changed. There is no return to a “pre-pandemic normal”. We are already well past that point.
When I was your age, in my mind, Christmas was mostly about presents, television, and cake. That was my expectation at the time. As a young teenager, I didn’t think about how much energy the fairy lights on the trees, around the doors, and on the windows were using. I didn’t think about what happened to all the shiny wrapping paper and synthetic bows once they had been torn off the presents. I didn’t think about how many of those presents would still be in purposeful use six months later, or how many would already have been discarded, broken, and thrown away. I didn’t think about how much food we had bought as a family and how much may be wasted. When I was your age, looking back, I could say that I was quite irresponsible.
Yes, I said ‘Thank You’ for the gifts I received, each of which was given with kind and loving intentions. But I didn’t check my gratitude beyond that. The air I breathed. The warmth I had. The entertainment I enjoyed. The food I ate. The buttons I pressed. I took that for granted. I thought I was entitled to that. But we’re not.
So, this Christmas and New Year, let us check our gratitude. Now, bear in mind that adverts on the television, in the cinema, and on social media are desperate, in our consumer society of “economic growth”, to pretend as if the pandemic never happened, and to persuade us that our contentment in life relies on newer, shinier, more luxurious products. That we have to buy. But this is not true.
Two years ago we could not even share Christmas with our full families. Let us check our gratitude this Christmas that we can be with each other. That we can be close to those we love and like. That we can find happiness in the enjoyment of others’ company and relationships and friendships we have.
Let us check our gratitude and be responsible with energy that we use only when necessary, with wrapping paper we choose that is fully recyclable or re-usable, with food we need that avoids excessive indulgence and waste, with gifts and presents that are ethical, sustainable, and useful for many months to come.
I wish for all of us a Christmas and New Year that will create happy memories. But they are words of wisdom that counsel us all to be responsible as human beings in this festive season, responsible to this planet which we do not own and on which we are only very temporary and short-term tenants, responsible towards each other in our words and actions. And let us remember that we are not entitled to use more, to have more, to waste more, and to keep throwing more away.
Let us enjoy this Christmas, but with responsibility and with gratitude.
I wish you all a wonderful break.”