A headmaster weeps, a community learns

On other days, indeed even on this day, acknowledgements and congratulations are given to boys with certificates, handshakes and smiles. Walking proudly in front of their classmates, the warmth flows, even if later delivered by a friendly elbow in the ribs or a cheeky slap on the back by close friends. Shows of support within a community are essential to individuals feeling valued and schools, with their deep cultures, practices, protocols, languages, expectations and goals, are indeed communities.

On this day, it was, after some well-deserved praise for various achievements and efforts, that the Head Master made to draw us all in for a shared moment. A genuine shared moment is not something that can happen by chance or in any random collection of people. It only happens when a community feels connected to each other. It only happens when the genuine intent is there to share something of deep value to all those gathered. In this case, it was the sad news that past members of the community, both staff and a recently graduated student, had passed away.

Hands behind backs, silent, heads bowed, surrounding the quadrangle on all sides, the students and staff of the senior school stood, listening, to the Head Master describe briefly — too briefly of course but time is a rare mineral in schools — a few key features of each person, and in particular their relationship with the school.

As he spoke, it was clear that he was beginning to struggle with the task of communicating such a message laced heavily with the weight of grief. To me, any reflections such as this immediately take me to memories of people I’ve lost. I could feel the same happening to the hundreds of people around me.

Then, not even at mid-sentence, his voice cut off, and he allowed himself to weep. It may have been just a momentary pause, repeated at a few times through his brief speech, but he let himself respond in a most human way to the experience. Not all leaders would do this. Some would put up a ‘professional’ wall around themselves and let the practical mind constrain the wounded heart.

And so he wept, and spoke, and made us remember that we are human and humans respond to situations with emotion. Perhaps more than his words, it tells the community that it is alright to grieve openly. It gives permission to tears. For the community — and especially the young men who form such a large part of it — that permission is essential not just for healing, but for growth.

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