Mr. Jones speaks about time at the end of year High School assembly

pic‘If you knew Time as well as I do,’ said the Hatter, ‘you wouldn’t talk about wasting it. It’s him.’

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ said Alice.

‘Of course you don’t!’ the Hatter said, tossing his head contemptuously. ‘I dare say you never even spoke to Time!’

‘Perhaps not,’ Alice cautiously replied: ‘but I know I have to beat time when I learn music.’

‘Ah! that accounts for it,’ said the Hatter. ‘He won’t stand beating. Now, if you only kept on good terms with him, he’d do almost anything you liked with the clock. For instance, suppose it were nine o’clock in the morning, just time to begin lessons: you’d only have to whisper a hint to Time, and round goes the clock in a twinkling! Half-past one, time for dinner!’

(‘I only wish it was,’ the March Hare said to itself in a whisper.)

‘That would be grand, certainly,’ said Alice thoughtfully: ‘but then — I shouldn’t be hungry for it, you know.’

‘Not at first, perhaps,’ said the Hatter: ‘but you could keep it to half-past one as long as you liked.’

You are probably asking yourself why am I reading to you from the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland. So let me explain …

It was a couple of weeks ago when Jesus knocked on my door. No, this was not some sudden moment of religious enlightenment, rather our very own Jesus – Signor Castillo Coranado – who popped his head around the door of HC11 and asked whether I had “five minutes”. Now I don’t know if you aware, but Dr Castillo Corando has many “five minutes” usually occasioned by some impending crisis to hit St John’s. What could it be, I wondered? The discovery of a secret tunnel running to the Deli dug by a team of resourceful 9th Graders? No. My fears were quickly allayed. He merely wished to ask whether I would agree to deliver a speech for the final assembly. Something “uplifting”, something to send us all on our way for the holidays. I was happy to agree. In any case, it is hard to say no to Dr Castillo – as they say in The Godfather: it is an offer you cannot refuse.

So, what to talk about? Well, surely, the idea of holidays which, if you think about it, is also the idea of time itself. Hence the opening quotation from Alice in Wonderland.

However, I begin this talk with a certain reluctance for when someone stands up at a Graduation or an Assembly such as this, the very act of standing up confers a kind of authority. It is as though you have some expert knowledge you wish to impart. And when it comes to the subject of holidays and time I am merely an amateur, a perpetual beginner. Ask my wife.

The last days before we teachers return in late August sees a far from happy Mr Jones. To be honest, I am downright bad-tempered. You see I realize at this point I haven’t read all the books I’d planned to read, I haven’t accomplished all those projects I’d hoped to do … there’s so much left undone. (And I suspect many of my colleagues feel the same way). Of course, I’d done other things. But still. How could I have wasted so much time?

So I would prefer not to issue advice as if from on high but rather take a wander with you – a friendly stroll – around the topics of holidays and time and see whether we can learn something along the way.

Let me begin by turning the clock back – myself in the equivalent to our 10th Grade. – and no … that’s not me in the photograph – things had moved on a little since then. It was a hot July morning at a boarding school in London. You could hear the chimes from Big Ben coming in through the classroom windows.  We had classes right to the bitter end (none of these “fun” activities you’ve enjoyed). It was – appropriately – an English lesson and I can remember my teacher issuing a stern warning. “If anyone …” he began “should think it amusing to do anything to my car before they leave I will personally sue the lot of you”. (I should explain that a couple of years before some students had had the bright idea of taking the wheels off another masters’ car and setting it up on bricks. Don’t get any ideas …).  “I am booked on the last ferry to Calais and if I miss it my holiday will be ruined” he continued. We looked at each other in wonder – what was he going to do that was so special? It even seemed a rather novel idea that teachers went on holiday – weren’t they just shelved alphabetically in the library until the next term? He explained that he was travelling across to France where he would then drive slowly in his old Morris Minor from village to village, stopping off here and there to sample the food and wine and general joie de vivre. It was the high point of his year. We looked at each other again, this time our expressions said “get a life” – which was unusual since this phrase hadn’t, as such, been invented yet. (Remember this was the late 1970s).

Coming back to 2013, the irony is that – yes, you guessed it, this is pretty much the kind of holiday your middle-aged English teacher Mr Jones enjoys ‘en famille’. We potter about down in Burgundy, sit in village squares drinking our ‘petits crème’, watching the swifts fly up and around the eaves, listening to the clocks that tell the hour twice (for all those working out in the fields – which speaks so eloquently of a different rhythm and way of life). There’s nothing in particular to do all day. Sheer bliss.

And you see, that’s the rub. On the one hand so much you want to do; and on the other, the desire just to let the time pass. And you must have experienced this too. Haring to the airport or racing down the motorway risking massive traffic jams to get to that remote hotel on an island, or your house up in the mountains, or that cabin in the midst of the rain forest and to do what? … breathe a huge sigh of relief, kick off your shoes and say “now I am on holiday and I don’t need to do anything”.

It’s strange, isn’t it, looked at in this way? But you know I think it is an expression of a bigger problem to do with Time itself. How often we seem to say “I haven’t the time” or “where does the time go?” Or conversely, “I’ve nothing to do, I’m bored, I wish it would hurry up.”

It wasn’t always like this. From the little research I’ve done, it seems that early Man had a very different sense of time, mostly to do with major cycles or recurring events: the seasons, the return of night and day, mythological time, the time of the gods. It is only in the 3rd Century BC that we have the first evidence of sun dials and a century later water clocks. Time was felt and experienced very differently – biological time, tiredness, hunger, exhaustion. Like Adam in the Bible one toiled with the sweat of one’s brow.

However, if we change our perspective so our own relative insignificance comes into focus in the vast expanse of time and space. Ask one of my colleagues in the Science Department and they’ll tell you that the age of the Milky Way – our galaxy – is some 10 million years (about half the age of the universe). That the age of the Earth we stand on is around 4,500 million years. That when we look up – as on our holidays – at that beautiful clear night sky and see a star, its birth took a few million years and that quite possibly ‘now’ it is no longer there – given the time it takes its light to reach our eyes. We see only its past – which, of course, is what makes Jay Gatsby’s love for Daisy all the more achingly sad as he stands there staring heavenwards at the end of Chapter One.

And yet against this insignificance there’s still our living and breathing sense of time: each one of us with our little tickers – our hearts – beating some 30 million times a year. Our treasured perception of events – our reaction time – some one tenth of a second. But imagine if we saw things as a house fly – how slow this would seem! And as the French poet Paul Valery wryly observed: imagine if the speed of light were slower – how would we look to ourselves as we looked in a mirror? Shaving in the morning, I lift my hand clutching the razor and – a few seconds later – my reflection lifts his. Strange …

In the face of such temporal uncertainties, is it surprising that Mankind has sought to tame time? Which, depending upon your point of view is either a good or bad thing: good in the ways that it allows our lives to function; bad in that it risks detaching us from the vital rhythms of the world around us.

Here are a few examples: the monks in the Middle Ages who divided up their day as they wanted to worship God at appointed hours; the captains of sailing vessels who needed to be able establish longitude and thereby their position on the globe; the factory owners who wanted to ensure productivity realizing that in an Industrial Capitalist economy “Time is Money” to employ Benjamin Franklin’s famous phrase.

Thus, like it or not, Time has become for many of us quantifiable, abstracted time. Can we even get our heads around the most modern definitions of time – Einstein’s theorems or the SI Unit which defines a second as:

“the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium-133 atom.”

I’m sure this makes perfect sense to Mr Rivers or Mr Carlin but I’ll confess that it doesn’t connect with me as I stare at the second hand on my watch taking its time to tick around the dial. And nor, I imagine, to that little boy in the photograph staring up at the classroom clock so evidently wondering to himself how much time is there to go before he can run away and play? Perhaps this was his last class before a holiday. Who’s to say?

And you might be sitting there thinking oh I wish he would hurry up and that this is a bit rich, a teacher talking about the mysteries of time when school – as an institution – is so obsessed with quantified, disciplined Time. Our prescribed beginning and end to a ‘school’ day; your schedules – or timetables – which apportion learning in 50 minute segments; what you’ve just experienced the past couple of weeks – exams – what are they but the absolute example of allocated time (from “you have two hours …” until “there are five minutes remaining …”. Quick, quick, one last sentence … We’re so many Alices beating Time to do our will.)?

(Actually there was an amusing moment in a revision class with this year’s Seniors. If you remember the fire alarm went off during a morning double period. They were furious! Who could have set it off? Why do we have to practice now? Revision time was so precious with only a week to go! And I thought to myself – how six months before, they’d have shouted whoo-hoo! and raced for the door. Einstein was right: time is relative).

So, that’s why for all of us – teachers and students – holidays are – literally – holy days: consecrated days, days on which normal work, normal time is suspended. A time of recreation – re-creation – of ourselves – and thus not to be squandered.

How are we going to use our time well?

There’s a famous story about an Emperor that I chanced upon in a book by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (I am never quite sure how to pronounce that name) however he credits it to Tolstoy, the Russian novelist. Whatever … why it concerns us is that it describes a search by the Emperor to find the answers to these three questions:

What is the best time to do each thing?

Who are the most important people to work with?

What is the most important thing to do at all times?

Having exhausted all his advisers and dissatisfied with their answers, the Emperor decides to visit a hermit who lived up on the mountain. As an enlightened man he was sure to give the Emperor answers to his three questions.

Well, the Emperor travels for many days and finally arrives at the hermit’s hut. He finds him digging a garden. The hermit is an old man and clearly the work is difficult and time consuming. Impatient, the Emperor asks for answers to his three questions but the hermit simply carries on digging.

Eventually the Emperor takes pity on the hermit and offers to take over the digging and continues for some hours until the sun begins to set behind the mountain. Then he puts down his spade and asks again for answers to his three questions.

At this point they see – the Emperor and the hermit – a man running towards them clutching his stomach before collapsing before them. Evidently he had been attacked and badly injured. The Emperor instinctively goes to help the man, makes bandages for his wounds and gets water for him to drink. Then, when the man is comfortable, the Emperor watches over the stranger until he sleeps and then falls asleep himself.

The next morning the Emperor wakes up to find the injured man is somewhat better and has something to confess. He explains that he was in fact an assassin come to kill the Emperor, an act of revenge for something in the past. However, further down the mountain he had been ambushed by some of the Emperor’s bodyguards and it was they who had given him his injuries. Imagine then his surprise to happen upon the Emperor digging and find it was the Emperor himself treating his wounds. The would-be assassin apologizes profoundly and pledges his allegiance to the Emperor.

Which was all well and good but the Emperor is still not satisfied concerning his three questions and turns yet again to the hermit – who had witnessed all these events – and asks for the solution to his problem.

And here I’ll return to the original version …

‘The hermit stood up and looked at the Emperor. “But your questions have already been answered.”

“How’s that?” the Emperor asked, puzzled.”

“Yesterday, if you had not taken pity on my age and given me a hand with digging these beds, you would have been attacked by that man on your way home. Then you would have deeply regretted not staying with me. Therefore the most important time was the time you were digging in the beds, the most important person was myself, and the most important pursuit was to help me. Later, when the wounded man ran up here, the most important time was the time you spent dressing his wound, for if you had not cared for him he would have died and you would have lost the chance to be reconciled with him. Likewise, he was the most important person, and the most important pursuit was taking care of his wound. Remember that there is only one important time and that is now. The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion. The most important person is always the person you are with, who is right before you, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future? The most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.”

There is only one important time and that is now.

The most important person is always the person you are with.

The most important pursuit is making the person standing at your side happy.

So … let us make a deal for the coming holidays. We will pack all those books (and Kindles and iPads); we will load up our iPods with gigabytes of hours of music and films; and we will draw up all those plans of what we want to do, places to visit, people to see.

However, we will try to read one of those books really well; and we will listen to one of those album or watch one of those films with real attention; and we will enjoy at least one meal with our friends and family not simply for the food but the moment itself, the company, the conversation, the sun and the surroundings.

And although we might not do exactly what we planned – that’s fine because we will have discovered other things that were there needing to be done.

And I would suggest that if we can hold to this, we will return to St John’s in late August cheerier people. That these moments will not just have been pleasurable in themselves but will also suffuse the coming school year and make those dark rainy Belgian days all the more bearable. We will have become in our own way Time Lords – not Doctor Who but Doctors of When – knowing how to dance to the music of Time.

If you have been, thank you for listening.  Have a safe and refreshing holiday.  See you next time.

Mr. Jones