An important part of life at Ackworth School is the Morning Meeting. Usually held in the Meeting House at 8.50am they signal the start of the educational day.
Teachers and significant staff at the school are asked to present 3 morning readings over the course of their allocated week, usually on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday - the topic is their choice and this can lead to some extremely interesting food for thought for the students.
This is a very new section of the Ackworth School website and it is intended that it will be expanded apon over the coming months with contributions from teachers. We have added the first of the morning readings below, please have a read!
All of my instructions – “please finish your breakfast”; “please don’t use your cereal like jewellery”; “please don’t play chicken with that rubbish truck” – are met with an arched eyebrow, followed by a “humph” that looks like this (--).
What follows is, of course, the action that is the diametric opposite of what I have asked.
My toddler has equated independent bipedal propulsion with total autonomy of all decisions pertaining to her life. My attempts to wrest control back from her monomaniacal clutches are as pesky and as exasperating and as fundamentally futile as a mosquito biting through armour. She knows what I clearly do not: eventually, and inevitably – by open hand or swatter or spray – she will win and I will lose, and the natural order of things will recommence, with her at the pinnacle of my family’s food chain, and me, languishing at its foot.
I exaggerate of course (I don’t exaggerate) but this shows the truth in Reinhold Nieburh’s Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” With my daughter, I know the difference. And so I have serenely accepted this phase of toddler tyranny (please, God, let this be a phase), and found, to my great pleasure, that I have reaped an unexpected benefit. By occasionally going with my autocratic daughter, my tally of unexpected adventure has dramatically increased.
So, in Huddersfield Art Gallery, when I shouted at my charging daughter (more in hope than expectation) “Turn left, Evie; turn left; LEFT!” and when she, of course, turned right, a new adventure began.
We were there to see an exhibition of her granddad’s photography club; what we found instead were buttons.
A room full of buttons. Thousands upon thousands of buttons. Thousands of buttons carving a walkway through the gallery floor; tens of thousands of buttons heaped in mounds; hundreds of thousands of buttons packed into giant Perspex pillars that speared up from the floor; hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of buttons towering over you, industrial chimney stacks of buttons distilled into the dimensions of a single room.
Buttons of every size, shape, colour, texture and material; shank buttons, sew through buttons, shaft buttons, jeans buttons, stud buttons; fabric, polyester, bone, leather, shell, wood, enamel, glass, steel, brass, ceramic.
I wind my way down the only clear path in the room, and suddenly plunge my hand into these buttony hillocks, wrist-deep, elbow-deep, and crane a handful out, letting them spill through my fingers, letting them slide and skitter back onto the piles. My daughter cannot believe her eyes: she is usually warned, on pain of ice-cream withdrawal, that she should never touch anything. Gleefully, we knelt at these knolls, scooping up buttons and watching them fall and drop and click and echo and scatter.
Millions of buttons; two million; six million; more. And that was the title of the installation we had stumbled into: 6 million +. This work, by the artist Antonia Stowe, is made up of over six million individual buttons donated by local and international communities. The buttons are piled inside galleries and arranged into towers which stood tall over the viewer, and loomed over children.
These buttons have a very specific purpose: they are designed to make us see anew the scale of the Holocaust and the vast number of lives affected by it.
Six million + is the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. Hundreds of thousands of these were children, some not older than my beautiful girl giggling next to me.
These were not buttons. These were people. These were lives.
I don’t even think that this is a stupid metaphor. These buttons are just like us. These buttons are so different from each other, so disparate and multifaceted, unique in shape and look, colour and age – yet, like human beings, all these individualities are subsumed within a broader, shared identity; for all our differences, we are recognisably each other, at some level, the same. And how easily these buttons could be manipulated; how easily dozens, hundreds could be clutched in my fist and thrown away, as easy as extermination; how powerful it made me, to seize these little discs of life and squeeze them in my hands, and watch them slip through my fingers, and spin disorientated in the air, and crash to the ground, clattering, stuttering – silent.
This, to me, was an extraordinary piece of art, primarily because it transcended art; it went beyond it, and became an act of bearing witness. That is what I’m talking to you about this week: what it means to bear witness, why it’s important, and how you can do it.
At its heart, bearing witness is about standing up for an important truth. Recognising this truth, however difficult this may be, is critical for the sake of humanity: neglecting it, destroys what makes us human. Bearing witness is about remembering traumatic events, preserving the memory of others, memorialising the dead, to give their lives purpose and our lives meaning. Bearing witness soothes pain; bearing witness sparks social conscience and political action. Bearing witness is to experience the life of another human being and feel compelled to take compassionate action on their behalf.
You exist in a time where, more than anything, we human beings must bear witness and look carefully at our world to remind ourselves of the truth that we must fight for. This academic year of 2014-15 alone marks several significant anniversaries of some of our recent history’s most terrible events. These dates may pass you by – indeed, they may have already passed you by – in a fug of total unremarkability, with little to suggest that these days will be or were anything other than utterly ordinary. But to others, these days are scarred by death; these dates that are so unexceptional to so many, are memories inked into the skin of a dwindling few. April 7th last year marked the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide, in which over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in 100 days. Great Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th 1914, and that day last summer saw us memorialise the centenary of WWI. Holocaust Memorial Day fell on January 27th 2015, and this day two months ago marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp; similar milestones will pass in April, when we will remember the liberation of the other concentration camps of WWII – Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau. April 17th 2015 marks the 40th anniversary of the genocide of 2 million Cambodians at the hands of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. July 11th 2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica, in which 8000 Bosnian Muslims were killed in the single largest mass-murder since WW2.
It is no exaggeration to say that 2015 is a year that catalogues horror.
These atrocities are spectres that give us nightmares or that huddle at the edge of our understanding. We are aware of these events as if they are a tidal wave that obliterates you with its force; or we are aware of these events as if they are a subtle flurry of ripples that distend the surface of water – a vestige of a far-off event that dissipates even as it makes itself felt.
Yet all these events – we have seen them before.
Mr Vergette talked a few weeks ago about Charlie Hebdo, about how we need satirists in our society to point out our mistakes and our hypocrisies as we stray from the moral high ground. He talked about how satirists use humour to confront the truth of the evils we commit. And he made me think of a satirical cartoon that I had seen. The cartoon comprises two panels. In the background of the left-hand panel is an unidentifiable, bombed-out city. In the forefront, a tired man, wearing the star of David on his shoulder, stoops beneath the weight of a handcart laden with dead bodies, covered by a flimsy sheet. Its caption: “Warsaw 1943”. The right-hand panel sees the same bombed-out city, the same tired man, the same stoop beneath the handcart, laden with the dead – but this time, there is no star of David on his sleeve; this time, the word “Muslims” is scribbled on the flimsy sheet that covers the bodies. Its caption: “Srebrenica 1993”. The cartoon’s title is the savagely ironic, “50 Years of Human Progress”.
The evil that MacNelly forces us to confront in his cartoon is articulated by the philosopher George Santayana – “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Our evil – that of ignorance, that of foolishness, is horrifyingly elaborated by the novelist Kurt Vonnegut – “We’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.”
But yet – despite this tragedy; despite this shame – we choose to confront this truth. We bear witness to it. It is the greatest testimony of us as human beings that we can choose to remember, despite the pain that reopening these wounds may cause, rather than forget by embracing ignorance or denial or death. We can choose to talk and to share and to learn and to understand and to realise and to see, and we do so willingly because it is a truth that transcends us all.
There will be those who will leave this meeting now and talk about how depressing it all was – but I couldn’t disagree more. It is more depressing if we never talk about this at all. It is more depressing if we pretend these events never happened, and then blindly stumble into a future where we doom ourselves to repeat the unheeded mistakes of our past.