‘Touch, We touched the very soul
Of holding each and every life.’
Memory of a Free Festival, David Bowie
You remember Tragic Festivals, don’t you?
Do you remember the time we watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off during assembly? Then, afterwards, there was a debate on the stage between teachers and students about the purpose of education. I think it was Harris (Year 10, jumper sleeves too long for his arms) who, quoting Heraclitus, said: ‘Learning about many things does not produce understanding.’ He got wedgied for that later in the boy’s toilets.
Then there was that time when Year 12 put on a production of The History Boys by Alan Bennett. Before the play, we’d all been asked to write what we thought a good school did for its children. I wrote something like ‘show us round the library’. Parents were invited too. After the play, the actors who played Hector, Lintott, Irwin and the Headmaster were interviewed in character. Gareth, who played the Headmaster, said that school was a training ground. Keith, who played Hector (portly and of florid complexion) said that school was where you learned what couldn’t be learned at home. Gareth was later stuffed into a wheelie bin for ‘being an instrumentalist’.
And I’ll never forget the time, when I was finally in Year 12, we put on Educating Rita. Rita was played by our Maths teacher, Mrs Wellock. The parents loved it – especially my mum. She started the OU a couple of months later. She wouldn’t admit to there being a connection, but whenever we bumped into Mrs Wellock later on, my mum always mentioned how her studies were going. Makes me well-up a bit to think of her with her graduation gown on. We’d gone down to the Royal Festival Hall specially. Some people’s names had been read out who had died during their years of night study. One woman got on stage – she was 94! She’d been studying comparative religion for fifteen years.
You could feel the flourishing in the air like a shared, touchable thing. It felt really good.
I miss those Tragic Festivals.
‘Someone passed some bliss among the crowd
And we walked back to the road, unchained.’
Endnote: Of course, there are no Tragic Festivals. I’d read about the Greek tradition in Martha Nussbaum’s Cultivating Humanity: a classical defense of reform in liberal education. The Greeks would put on drama pieces that reflected issues of the day. Afterwards, there’d be formal debate and decision-making. On reading that, literature made new sense to me: it seems more purposeful and critical – kind of like an applied truth-seeking. It’d need some careful thought, but let’s bring back those Tragic Festivals. They would remind us why we tell stories, and allow us to see stories as not simply psychologically-privileged (in functional terms), but spiritually enlightening.