Remembrance Day in school is one of those moments which make you realise what an important job we do, and what a privileged position teachers are in. It’s always the day of the year when I want to be teaching period 3; I’m disappointed if I have a non-contact session. It’a an honour to share the silence with young people as we reflect, separately but together, on our individual and collective experience of loss and sacrifice. There are few other occasions where I’m so intensely aware of what Graham Nuthall calls the different worlds of the classroom. On the surface we all experience an identical minute between the bells, but in our private inner worlds each person has an unknown and unique journey.
I always preface the silence with my classes with a little about why Remembrance Day is particularly important to me. I tell them about my Grandfather, an officer in the Royal Navy, serving in the Arctic convoys and captaining a minesweeper, before working on the Pluto programme to supply fuel to the beaches on D Day. After the war he returned to teaching as Headmaster of Grasmere school, where he worked until retirement. Sacrifice is not always about death. We remember the fallen but also those who were – and still are – prepared to risk their lives to defend our society. We can learn a lot from their individual sacrifice for the collective good.
Each year I display a poem on the board for the students to read if they wish. Some like – or need – a focus for the minute. Previously I have used Sassoon, Owen, and McCrae, but in recent years I have favoured Mametz Wood by Owen Sheers. This poem is so resonant and powerful in its description of the uncovering of the remnants of the battle of the Somme in peacetime as farmers plough. Sheers has spoken eloquently of the inspiration for the poem as he visited the site:
Walking over that same ground, now a ploughed field, 85 years later I was struck by how remnants of the battle – strips of barbed wire, shells, fragments of bone, were still rising to the surface. It was as if the earth under my feet that was now being peacefully tilled for food could not help but remember its violent past and the lives that had sunk away into it. Entering the wood, a ‘memory’ of the battle was still evident there too. Although there was a thick undergrowth of trailing ivy and brambles, it undulated through deep shell holes. My knowledge of what had caused those holes in the ground and of what had happened among those trees stood in strange juxtaposition to the summer calmness of the wood itself; the dappled sunlight, the scent of wild garlic, the birdsong filtering down from the higher branches.
As we remember the Great War it is our duty and privilege as teachers to help the next generation reach back into the collective memory of our violent past and hope with all our hearts for a peaceful future in their hands.
by Owen Sheers
For years afterwards the farmers found them –
the wasted young, turning up under their plough blades
as they tended the land back into itself.
A chit of bone, the china plate of a shoulder blade,
the relic of a finger, the blown
and broken bird’s egg of a skull,
all mimicked now in flint, breaking blue in white
across this field where they were told to walk, not run,
towards the wood and its nesting machine guns.
And even now the earth stands sentinel,
reaching back into itself for reminders of what happened
like a wound working a foreign body to the surface of the skin.
This morning, twenty men buried in one long grave,
a broken mosaic of bone linked arm in arm,
their skeletons paused mid dance-macabre
in boots that outlasted them,
their socketed heads tilted back at an angle
and their jaws, those that have them, dropped open.
As if the notes they had sung
have only now, with this unearthing,
slipped from their absent tongues.