Alex Hems: Head's Blog Nov 9, 2018
This week, as Europe marks the centenary of the end of World War One, we have held remembrance assemblies in Lower and Upper School, and girls from Junior and Lower School will take part in the Remembrance Service this Sunday at Murrayfield Parish Church. As time moves on, and the major conflicts of the twentieth century are now barely within living memory, the challenge for us in schools is to make these acts of remembrance feel relevant to the current generation of young people. We try to focus on stories of individual men and women, with the aim of putting faces and names to some of the incomprehensible millions who died, reminding us of what Wilfred Owen described as the ‘pity of war’. In our commemorations we have explored the lives of ordinary soldiers during the First World War. Our Upper School Remembrance Assembly reflected upon Wilfred Owen’s experiences as a soldier and his literary legacy. In his final letter home, he described the mundane activities taking place in a cellar as he and his men waited to embark on his final attack. Most of the poems for which he is well known had been written during a period of recovery from shell shock at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, and reveal his sense of horror at what he had witnessed on the Western Front and his empathy for his men. He returned to the Western Front in the Autumn of 1918, where he died on 4th November 1918 at the Sambre-Oise Canal. His mother learned the news of his death on Armistice Day. Sixth Form students also had the opportunity to watch Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, which brings vividly to life the daily routine of the ordinary soldier. The film was created by using technology to slow down and remove static from archive black and white film footage. Colour was added to selected parts and sound dialogue between soldiers linked to the silent footage, matching regional accents, following painstaking work by lip readers. The film is narrated through the oral testimony of veterans. Director Peter Jackson says that the aim is to make us see the participants “as human beings, not as figures in a history book”. Our students were struck by the mundane nature and concerns of military life, much of which was spent behind the lines, the camaraderie which enabled them, like Wilfred Owen, to cope with the adverse circumstances in which they found themselves, and the surprising degree of empathy they felt for their enemies. Watching the film, the 100 years between us seem to slip away and we could be looking into the faces of our 21st century neighbours and friends. It seems to me essential that we find ways to keep individual humanity at the heart of these acts of remembrance if their message is to reach this generation and those to come.
We are now two weeks into our new approach to mobile phones in Upper School. Thank you to those of you who have been in contact to express your support for this change of policy. As I walk around the school at Break and lunchtimes it is good to see girls chatting, reading and working, but not with their heads bent over a phone. Those who need their phones to access work know that they can do so in the Library, and the Sixth Form girls know that they have their common rooms if they wish to use a phone for social purposes. I hope we have found a balance, which has put face to face communication, and spending time with people, back at the heart of our community during the school day. I hope too that girls are finding they can relax a bit more without having to think about their on-line life quite so much. Through face to face interactions we fine-tune our skills in decoding social signals, learn to defuse tension with smiles and laughter and develop empathy. We are forced to find words for saying ‘sorry’ or expressing sympathy, not just pop an emoji on the end of a message.
In my experience almost all situations are improved when we are reminded of the feelings and frailties that we share with those around us, whether across continents, across centuries or across a classroom.
Mrs Alex Hems MA Oxon
Head, St George's School for Girls, Edinburgh