Good morning and welcome back. I hope you had a great break.
Like a lot of folks, I spent part of the holiday at the movies, and I found myself intrigued by “The King’s Speech,” a film about his royal highness, Albert Frederick Arthur George, otherwise known as the Duke of York, otherwise known around the palace as Bertie, the man who would eventually come to be known as King George VI. The movie focuses on Bertie’s painfully pronounced stutter, and on the steps he takes to overcome it. This personal issue takes on added significance when Bertie unexpectedly becomes king, after his brother’s abdication, and is called upon to comfort and inspire his countrymen at the outbreak of World War 2.
While the film doesn’t spend a lot of time examining the root cause of Bertie’s stuttering, it is suggested that his impediment was the result of his being mistreated as a child. Bertie’s father, George V, is remembered for saying, ”I was frightened of my father, and I am damned well going to make sure that my children are afraid of me.”
For many in that era, fear was a normal part of the pedagogy. I am sure George V did what he thought was best for his son; after all, he didn’t want his Bertie to be confused with Bertie Wooster, and while he needed to toughen his son up, he never envisioned this his young, stuttering boy might some day lead a vast empire.
An aside: Each spring UCC hosts a dinner for Old Boys who have graduated more than 50 years ago; some of these men came of age around the time that Bertie assumed the throne. The first time I heard these now old men describe their school years, I was flabbergasted. Some, with tears in their eyes and lumps in their throats, talked fondly, and in some cases almost reverentially about masters who used to cane them on a regular basis. I remember one Old Boy, in describing a beloved master, saying almost wistfully, “He gave me 3 of the best!”
While there are some extraordinarily painful exceptions, in general, most of these Old Boys harbor no ill will towards their teachers. When asked what he thought about being caned, one Old Boy almost snapped, “I had a brother in the war. How could I possibly complain about the switch or anything that was done to me?”
I mention all of this, just to give you a sense of context. Like Bertie and his father, these men were a product of a different age. It was a time when, for example, one UCC master actually soaked his switches, so that there would be more snap to them when they were employed.
“The King’s Speech,” though, is about more than just overcoming a speech impediment; it’s about hope overcoming and fear. What changes Bertie, what helps him get through the agony of his stuttering, is a teacher who believes in him – even when he no longer believes in himself. Lionel, his speech therapist, achieves a breakthrough, in part by shrinking the social distance between student and teacher; he forges a first name relationship with his patient, and that’s not so easy when the patient’s name is Albert Frederick Arthur George.
More than anything, though, Lionel gives Bertie a sense of the possible. A UCC colleague once told me that hope is the most powerful gift we-educators can give to a student. She said, “A man figures out who he wants and needs to be through the hope of others.”
All of us have impediments, and stutters come in a variety of shapes, sizes and degrees of difficulty. You are surrounded by talented boys, and what may surprise you is the number of them who quietly feel that they are lacking in one area or another. As we begin this New Year together, my wish is that you not only find the hope you need, but that you recognize that you are a source of hope for one another.
You are a source of hope when you say “hello” to a guy you pass in the hallway, even though you don’t know him all that well, or when you help someone who can’t find his backpack. You are a source of hope in the classroom when you offer that pen to someone who has forgotten his or when you take the time to explain something to a classmate who might be lost or confused. You are a source of hope whenever you offer a word of encouragement to someone who seems down. If we remember George V’s quote about his children and fear, then we should also remember the late Christopher Reeve’s observation that, “Once you choose hope, anything’s possible.”