Principal's assembly 4th June 2019


A man from Halifax has failed in his attempt to earn a place in the Guinness Book of Records. After spending almost a month living in a tree in his friend’s garden, he came down to earth only to find that the world record was not 26 days, as he had been told, but 26 years. The record was set by a man who climbed a palm tree in Indonesia in the early 70s, and still hasn’t come down.
Interviewed by the Yorkshire Post, Mr Chris Lee said, “I feel a right prat.” The attempt was made in a 250 year old sycamore at an altitude of 40 feet. Mr Lee hoisted up food in a bucket, slept in a sleeping bag wedged between branches, and took with him a supply of books to read, including the Yellow Pages.*
 
I suspect there are several morals to this story I first read in the 1990s, including not to believe everything that your friends tell you. We can’t fault Mr Lee’s ambition, though, nor his resilience.
It comes from a collection of stories by the newly appointed Poet Laureate, Simon Armitage, each one his take on what it means to be northern. Armitage is very much one of our own – West Yorkshire born and currently Professor of Poetry at the University of Leeds – and indisputably a leader in his field.
I mentioned before the break that this half-term’s assemblies would explore leadership skills and characteristics – what it takes to become a leader and how to succeed when you are one.
The Moravian Church has, in many ways, always taken a lead, even when it was unpopular to do so. For example, they believed in educating girls as well as boys as far back as the 16th century. They also began ordaining women in the 1740s. As the Moravians travelled the world, they recognised people that states refused to recognise as fully human – slaves, Native Americans and Inuits. They also started to educate all those people.
All radical moves and against the prevailing wind. Doing the right thing, even when it is uncomfortable to do so, may be one key trait of a great leader. That’s not difficult to imagine in a school scenario: you know that your friend is doing the wrong thing, even a dangerous thing, and so you do the right thing in alerting a teacher.
The opportunities for you to display integrity won’t stop when you leave school. What might change is the cost of doing the right thing. Integrity is not difficult until it costs you something. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn knew what it was like to suffer for pointing out the truth.
Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918 and served in the Soviet army during World War Two but was arrested in 1945 under censorship laws, having made negative comments about Stalin. He was initially imprisoned in correctional work camps, but in 1950 was transferred to one of the new Special Camps. Here he wrote perhaps his most famous work, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which tells the story of life in the most harsh of conditions. From 1953, with no further trial and suffering from cancer, he was exiled to Kazakhstan.
Permitted to return to Russia after Stalin’s death, Solzhenitsyn was allowed to publish some of the novels that he had written during his imprisonment. So clear were his descriptions of the treatment of dissidents and the evils of communism, Solzhenitsyn was expelled form his homeland in 1974, only to return after the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1992. He later won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I would argue that any serious student of History, Politics or Literature should read at least One Day in the Life. Solzhenitsyn died in 2008.
It would be easy to think that this is merely an episode from a dark historical time long forgotten. Dissidents – those willing to speak out whatever the repercussions – in 2019 would disagree. You may have heard of the band Pussy Riot, arrested for their political views in Russia during the World Cup last summer, or the Dalai Lama’s protest against Chinese domination of Tibet.
Great leaders do not fear standing up for their views. Be brave and stand up for what is right.
 
 
 
 
Quoted in  All Points North by Simon Armitage (Penguin, 1998)

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