Samuel Beckett, the Irish poet and playwright penned these words in 1983 (Worstward Ho), and I can’t say they caught my attention then. Beckett as a writer seems to me someone you have to keep trying until you develop the taste, like Campari or Green olives. I first came across Beckett when my Sixth Form Society at school read “Waiting for Godot” whilst drinking Retsina with the Head of English, Billy Bell, and to be honest, both seemed unpalatable, but we persevered. After all, Greek or otherwise, wine is wine.
My point at using ‘Fail again, Fail better’ at assembly and at meetings the last few weeks has been to highlight to children and their teachers, that life does not start out perfect, there has been no divine right to receive success, and from conversations had over the years, those who in the end succeed have done so having first learned to cope with failure, and to handle that outcome really rather frequently. The latest example is of course another man of Ireland, Rory Mcilroy, whose extraordinary failure to convert a 4 shot lead at the Masters this year required just one more attendance at a major to be dispelled.
It seems particularly important to put across this view in Education, to work with colleagues to ensure that it is hard wired into a teacher’s psyche. Children will come and go (they always grow up on us); a teacher’s career is like ‘Groundhog day’, a cycle of repetitious activity which we hope should lead to transformative activity for a child’s life expectations. I have been watching all of my Heads of Department teach this month, and what they all have in common (so far) is an extraordinary patience with their pupils. Meticulous planning does not mean inflexible scheduling, and the many great lessons I have seen have had the children mainly in charge, being given the responsibility for their learning and in taking it, making real progress.
The latest report on the 11+ SATs in England by Lord Bew comes to the conclusion that its creative writing test for children should be scrapped, something that has been self-evident to their teachers since the implementation of KS testing over 20 years ago. I remember attending a seminar on teaching creative writing in school at the time, and the structures children were expected to put in place to score heavily led teaching to become formulaic and quite obviously stifle the very creativity it sought to promote. As previous reviews have identified, the major requirement teachers need to meet if they are to develop this talent is to find sufficient time for their young charges to write. In short, like pretty much everything else in the classroom, the rationing of time to an activity is likely to lead to underperformance. I remember the great irony for most state primary schools as their curriculum was expanded, was that their numeracy hour was reduced to 50 minutes to fit it all in.
Beckett’s life story seems straight out of the creative writer’s top draw; a man who excelled at school and University in Dublin, and at cricket to the extent that he was mentioned in Wisden, managed a mental breakdown in his twenties whilst publishing his first novels, and almost stabbed to death in Paris in 1939, before joining the resistance during the war for which he won the Croix de Guerre. A couple of decades of eminence follow in which his greatest works were written, in both French and English, before his career was almost fatally damaged by the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969. Anticipating that her intensely private husband would be saddled with fame from that moment on, his wife, Suzanne called the award a “catastrophe”! He died shortly after her death, in 1989 from emphysema.
In researching about Beckett, I came across a nice quote from his brother, no doubt trying to encourage Samuel out of his doldrums in the ‘30s, during which period success was relative, suffering too perhaps a little in the shadow of his great friend, James Joyce, when publishers preferred to leave Beckett’s minimalist writings unpurchased. Francis wrote “Why can’t you write the way people want?” And there’s the rub, now as then. If only children did as we asked, their (and our) lives would be so much easier, and success, fame and fortune would be assured. As if…Beckett’s own story reminds us all that nothing comes easily, and that life is there to be lived despite an unpromising background. A fellow Irishman, our previous Registrar, Anita Roberts, taught me long ago that “Life’s hard and then you die” – said of course with that twinkle in the eye that all of their nation share.