For the benefit of those who are new to the School, we use assemblies to deliver a Reflection, a short address on the topic of the week presented by senior boys or by staff; I always have the privilege of giving the first Reflection of a school year.
This week our theme has been valour, which is defined as bravery or courage, but particularly during conflict. It is courage when faced with the potential for personal harm.
I spoke during Monday’s assembly of my expectations of you all as we face a new school year. There will be times when each of us needs to show personal courage and do things that may require us to speak out, to put our heads above the parapet, to make ourselves feel uncomfortable. Very often it is the people you least expect who show the most exceptional courage.
I read Science at university but, being a musician, I also played in the university orchestra and made many friends amongst the music fraternity there. I always remember one music student, Graham, a very unremarkable man in so many ways, he was quiet, reserved, slightly eccentric and, I think, deliberately inconspicuous. He was legendary for having failed his driving test twenty times; the last test, he was in stationary traffic for ten minutes before the examiner had to inform him that he was waiting behind a row of parked cars. Anyway, that’s not the reason why I am talking to you about Graham.
Graham wouldn’t say boo to a goose, he was content to let others take the limelight both musically and personally. But he did a remarkable thing which I still remember to this day and which, in my opinion, marked him out as a man of real character.
The university orchestra was being conducted by a guest conductor, a very famous and eminent Professor from America. At the first rehearsal everyone was slightly in awe of his reputation and his charismatic personality. The rehearsal progressed and it transpired that he was a real stickler for detail: everything had to be performed his way and he would not accept anything less than his interpretation of the music. OK, that was fair enough.
The trouble came when, halfway through the rehearsal he used a really inappropriate and abusive word out of the blue. It was considered inappropriate then, back in the 1980s, it would be considered deeply offensive in this day and age. The first time he used this term I don’t think people could believe their ears, it was a case of, ‘Did he really say that?’ – people were genuinely shocked. A few minutes later he used the same term again, at which point our unremarkable Graham got to his feet. ‘Professor,’ he said, ‘I find that word utterly offensive, as I am sure do most of my friends here. Please would you not use such language again.’ Complete silence. And then he said ‘Thank you’, and sat back down again. The Professor nodded, and carried on with his rehearsal, slightly flustered, embarrassed and, I think, somewhat chastened.
It was a different world then: challenging authority brought its risks. Here was a quiet, mild-mannered student who had summoned up the courage to challenge a famous Musicology Professor. He didn’t know how the conductor would respond, he didn’t know if he would get into trouble with the Music Department or the university authorities, he didn’t know if such a challenge would mean the end of his university career. But he felt that the language being used was wrong and he couldn’t sit by and do nothing. It was a really impressive and selfless act.
That’s courage. Indeed, I would class it as valour because he could have faced personal harm to his university career.
Last year we commissioned a survey to look at Diversity and Inclusion at the RGS. In many respects the results read quite well. We are an inclusive community and there is a lot at the RGS of which we can proud in the way we treat each other. But there was a pretty stark outcome from that survey which revealed that 54% of Asian students at the RGS, that’s over half, had experienced some kind of racial abuse during their time at the RGS. A couple of years ago I had to give an assembly to the Third Form about their casual and prolific use of homophobic language. There is a lot of loose talk at the RGS which causing great upset, and we need to recognise this and stop it.
Inclusivity is one of the core values of the RGS but we cannot call ourselves an inclusive community if individuals are abusing others simply because of their ethnicity or their sexual orientation, or are demeaning and disparaging to women. In June I saw evidence on a mobile phone screen of the sort of abuse which was being levelled at another student and it was absolutely shocking.
And so my challenge to you all at the start of this new school year is to show the courage of Graham by speaking out against such language. Because if we are going to address this problem, it has to start with you, the students. If you hear something which makes you feel uncomfortable, show your disapproval, make it clear that such abusive words are not acceptable. You don’t have to be angry in the way you convey your feelings, you can do it in a very kind way, but do it, don’t leave it to someone else.
Kindness is quite an effective tool. Some people make abusive comments because they just don’t think, or they are desperate to fit in, or they thoughtlessly copy what they have heard before in their social group. Calling them out in a kind way won’t, I hope, trigger an angry response but it might just wake them up as to the effect they are having on others.
Research has found that speaking up, being an active bystander, is good. It’s good for the person who has intervened, who can look back and feel that they are trying to make a change in a community and to make a difference. It’s good for the victim of such abuse because they feel less isolated and they feel a greater sense of belonging to a community if they know that others are looking out for them and challenging inappropriate behaviour. And it is ultimately good for the person who has acted inappropriately because it reinforces to them that their prejudice is not the norm and, if they are challenged, they may be less ready to express such prejudice in the future.
If I were to ask every student at the RGS whether the use of racist, homophobic or misogynistic language was acceptable, virtually every student, I have no doubt, would say ‘no’. People who use abusive language always feel that they have more support in a community than they really do. But, if we are passive bystanders when faced with abuse these people will continue to think that way.
So, remember Graham – one person challenging an abusive and offensive comment in a calm and measured way can have a profound influence on all those who witness it. We all have a responsibility to address an issue which has afflicted this community for too long and which has not been recognised and effectively tackled until now.
The School Hymn starts with the words ‘He who would valiant be, let him come hither’. It is imploring us all to stand up and to demonstrate the courage which will make this community a more pleasant one for everyone within it.
Thank you for listening, and thank you, in advance, for your actions and for your bravery in making everyone feel a part of this School.
Dr JM Cox