The Last Post
At 10.45am the students fan out along with the L-shaped lines of the new building, and across the tiered steps. The dazzle of sharp November sun, a playground half in sun, half in shade. I shield my eyes to see my deputy waving to me that we are all assembled and we begin.
Staff and students are jumbled in an informal formality. Individuals not known for their appreciation of the gravity of a situation sense a different atmosphere, like a tremor in the air. Early shuffling and nervousness gives way to a resolute presence. The grey and khaki cadets of all shapes and sizes, some 16 years old and trench-ready in another era, stand to attention with Mr. Massey. He drills them in a fatherly way, with smiles and a tinge of pride. Sixth formers, standing further back stand like thoughtful sentinels framing the picture.
I welcome everybody, and speak of my grandfather, a fireman in the Blitz, and my Uncle Jack who died in Crete, his grave discovered only a couple of years ago by my father and mother in a bright olive grove in a quiet corner of the island. I tell them that yesterday I was at a busy and bustling Headteachers conference in Westminster, so took some quiet moments to stroll through the grounds of Westminster Abbey only to be shocked by the thousands of wooden crosses and poppies in the turf beneath the sheer walls.
A clutch of Y7s bob like robins at the microphone and their own poetry wafts in the air, some words clear and bright and heard by all, others blown away by the wind. But it doesn’t seem to matter. We all know and feel their nervous effort. I see pastoral staff alert for any possibility of silliness or fainting visibly begin to relax as the ceremony builds and takes shape. Each speaker, musician, prayer group and contribution grows, but it is the long silences taking shape between them which begin to speak more powerfully. The Last Post is played on a violin. Perfectly imperfect haunting violin notes rise into the cirrus high sky and we all stand and wait.
11 o’clock inches round. I close my eyes and imagine. Some point their heads up to the penetrating blue, or bow, or wipe their eyes. Silence becomes presence. One collective, unspoken groan of pain for all the wars, each individual life, each family, each country. Children and staff from Gloucester, London, Newcastle, Abidjan, Calcutta, Prague, Bucharest, Syria, Palermo, Edmonton, Munich. All of us consider how each of our families have been touched by war. The unspoken awfulness experienced by our great-grandfathers. Last year’s memory of a refugee camp and what it does to a child. Our new Head Boy Abdul reminds us of the thousands of Muslims killed in the First World War. We hear Jesus’s words of John 15 – ‘Greater love has no one than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’. Colonel Lance Ranson (Grenadier Guards) reminds students to hold our politicians to account for never embarking on the madness of war again.
And suddenly it is over. The guests trickle away. Our speakers head inside. Slow shuffle of feet. Silence remains, beautiful and terrible. And I sense that something special has happened and a moment has been shared. And somehow I feel that despite a week of hatred and disbelief in international politics, despite today’s memorial of military leaders getting things wrong, there is hope in the air. Hope has become a verb and I feel it around me. The cadets proud of their teamwork, their contribution and service. The boy who arrived in the school from Syria recently and whose family are so grateful for the welcome he has received from students and staff that they invited me around for dinner. I think of this wonderful and precious blend of culture and language and personality that our school represents, and how in some strange way it resembles those gentle, early exchanges in both wars between men and women from different cultures, countries and classes who were thrown together, and who began to learn from each other. From ignorance to solidarity. Yes, I feel enormous hope.