Epidemics always shake our faith in our own power, as they remind us of the relative fragility of the “human condition,” to use an expression that is dear to Hannah Arendt. They remind us that we should not underestimate what nature can unleash on us, as well as the need to rethink the way we act and behave. There are many early examples of this in classical literature, as well as in the religious texts of different cultures, which show us the pain and anguish that the idea of disease often fills humans with, most particularly when it is considered to be a divine punishment for our reprehensible actions, as was often the case in the past.
The school year has now ended and I think we can all take a collective deep breath to proclaim with pride that “we made it.” In a term unlike any other, we faced unprecedented challenges that put us all to the test. Having said that, I firmly believe that we managed to offer a very robust online education to our students from the beginning of the closure, and I thank you all for the messages of support that you have sent us over.
In Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate, food plays a central role. Each of its 12 chapters, which is dedicated to a different month of the year, opens with a Mexican recipe that the narrator has found in a notebook she inherited from an ancestor. Cooking is seen here as a form of poetry that plays not with the choice of words or their order, but with a variety of ingredients and their relative quantities, allowing us to convey our feelings of joy or sadness, love or anger, hope or despair, to the people who eat the dishes we prepare for them. Not metaphorically but literally, as if emotions could be communicated through food.
“I promise to devote all my strength and skills to the education of every student with whom I will be entrusted.” This is the Socratic oath that many young men and women take in a number of countries when they enter the beautiful profession of teaching. In the same way as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford confers higher degrees by ceremonially touching candidates on the head with a sacred book, the act of swearing an oath in order to become a teacher adds a sense of dignity and service to the practice of education.
These past few weeks have been filled with momentous occasions and, as another school year comes to an end, I have been constantly reminded that our community is brimming with both talent and promise. I invite you to watch this video of our grad walk so that you can see firsthand the beautiful journey that our students have undergone.
While we could not do justice to the concept of change unless we engaged in an evidence-based scientific or philosophical discussion, it cannot be denied that our minds are in constant evolution, as we have an innate desire to further our knowledge and skills. We are programmed to learn and learn and learn. Personally, I find it useful to imagine this perennial intellectual regeneration, this incessant and conscious pursuit of new horizons, as a journey in search of ourselves, of who we are as individuals, citizens and humans. In other words, a lifelong voyage that allows us to explore our personal identity, our place in society and our role in the wider human endeavour. Not unlike Odysseus.
Memory is central to humankind. It is what defines who we are, what reminds us of where we come from, what guides us in our determined steps towards a hopefully better future. And education, in more than one sense, is about memory, about enabling students to gain an insight into our common cultural history, that is to say, the history of everything that is not purely natural but rather created by humans. I am referring to philosophical ideas, social customs, laws, mathematical axioms, scientific hypotheses and works of different kinds, from the medieval tales of Marie de France to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, from Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperatives to Marie Curie’s findings on radioactivity, from ancient Egyptian burial rites and the Code of Hammurabi to Artemisia Gentileschi’s dramatic paintings of strong female figures.
Like the seasons, each academic year is cyclical, always new yet forever eternal. The freshness of a pristine school year, with its unwritten script and limitless possibilities, gives way 10 months later to journeys that continue (for our students) and journeys that end (for our graduates who leave TFS for the wider world).
It was a relatively warm afternoon, but an unexpected downpour took me by surprise and forced me to take shelter under the archway of a nearby castle, where generations and generations of lieutenants of successive kings had lived for centuries. I was in Honfleur, on the northern coast of France, and a bronze bust with the coat of arms of Quebec, which was on a wall adjacent to the archway, suddenly caught my attention.
A few days ago, I was deeply moved by an email I received from a member of our school community in which he lamented the loss of young lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and shared with me a simple, yet profound piece of music by Manuel de Falla (1876–1946), from which he had tried to take comfort at a time of tragedy.
As we prepare for lunch on the last day of classes, and more precisely at 11:28 in the morning, the sun will be at its lowest position in the sky in the whole year and it will seem to us as if it is standing still, resting for a brief moment before setting out again on its eternal journey to warm our homes and our hearts. The winter solstice has indeed had a very special significance for humans since Neolithic times and it still marks our lives. If scientific books relate it to the longest night in the year, I prefer to think about it as a turning point, as a harbinger of longer days to come and as the beginning of the holidays.
Standing at the top of the Tower of Hope, I hold my breath in awe of the view of Saint-Boniface Cathedral, where Métis leader Louis Riel is buried, and The Forks, a site of age-long human activity situated at the confluence of two mighty rivers. If I look westward from here, my spirit is transported upstream to the source of the Assiniboine in the ancient glacial valleys of Saskatchewan. If I allow my imagination to flow downstream with the waters of the Red River, I start dreaming of Lake Winnipeg and Hudson Bay.
Midsummer is fast approaching and, like the final acts of Shakespearean comedies, the school term is coming to a joyous end that must be properly celebrated. I look around me and I see wonderful people carrying out our school’s vision and mission on a daily basis. Together, we have defined the essence of TFS. Together, we are living our ideals and values. Together, we empower children to flourish into young men and women who can successfully take on the challenges of their generation. We are, undoubtedly, a very special community.
“After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own.” This is a quotation by Oscar Wilde, displayed on the back cover of last year’s Deutsche Grammophon edition of the Polish composer’s complete works. When I first read the sentence, I must confess that it truly captivated me. The words turned round and round in my head, as I tried to wrestle with them in the hope of deciphering their ultimate truth. For a time, however, I only seemed capable of drawing possible parallels between the lives of the two artists, which did not lead to a satisfactory understanding of Wilde’s bold statement. Until on one particular day, when I was delivering a talk on citizenship and multilingualism at a national conference in Montreal, something clicked in my mind.
A rose of Jericho. What an evocative name for what I thought was a beautiful flower! For many years I was obsessed with it, even if I had never actually seen one. I first read about it as a teenager in a novel where a rose of Jericho mysteriously opened up at the precise moment when its protagonist started giving birth. This ultimate association with the life cycle made me yearn to possess one. Unfortunately, however, I searched and searched for years on end to no avail. Until about two decades later, when I was browsing by chance around a medieval market close to my native city of Barcelona, and a dreamy, timeless voice whispered to me from behind an array of bewildering goods on sale: “Sir, can I offer you a rose of Jericho?”
When snow-laden clouds hover over the world and the sun sets at an untimely hour as if sheltering from glacial gusts, we all need the warmth of the hearth and the love of family and friends. We yearn for light, any light, most particularly if we are confronted with unexpectedly harsh realities.
It is precisely at times like this when it is most important to reaffirm the four basic values that bind us together as a community: integrity, discernment, respect, engagement. We cannot tire of stating our belief in an education that, in addition to instilling academic ambition in our students, sets out to help them become principled young adults determined to play a role in the betterment of humanity.
I am not quite sure why, but the dial of a grandfather clock, with its hands moving slowly yet surely, seems to me to be a much more evocative representation of the passage of time than the four-digit number at the top of our computer screens. This number might be factually accurate, but the circular motion of the hands reminds me of the recurrent beginnings and ends of our days, our nights, our seasons, our years. Time is ostensibly cyclical.
Welcome to a new school year at TFS. Though our families have yet to arrive, already a heightened sense of energy, activity and anticipation has permeated the classrooms, hallways and campuses. Part of this is due to the renovations and improvements, scheduled for a September completion, but if you were to ask any of the staff now back from summer vacation, their answer would be how keenly we are looking forward to the students’ return.