May You be Dull

On Sunday in Dunblane Cathedral the minister told a story about a boy at school in America, tasked to write an essay on his hopes and dreams for the future.  He had always wanted to create a stud farm, and rear the finest race horses in America.  He drew up an elaborate plan, and submitted his essay.  It received a poor mark.  He approached his teacher and asked what was wrong with his work.  “Well,” said the teacher, “it’s just not very realistic.  Rewrite it, make it more down to earth, and I’ll see if I can award you a better mark.”

The boy went away and thought about this for a while, and then returned to the teacher with the same essay.  He said, “You can keep your mark, and I will keep my dream.”  In due course he went on to found the most successful stud farm in America.  

It’s a nice story.  Who among us has not had a piece of work in which we took pride cast back at us?  And what a great line – “You can keep your mark, I will keep my dream.”  Mind, I wouldn’t have dared say it at school.  That would have been living too dangerously. 

Is it crucial to the story that the boy eventually fulfilled his dream?         

Nowadays, by and large, pupils are encouraged to dream.  Still, there might be a downside to telling people of aspiration that all they need is perseverance, and their dreams will come true.  In the film Dead Poets Society, Mr Keating encouraged and inspired his English scholars to “carpe diem” and discover their potential.  His colleague, the Scottish classics teacher Mr McAllister, warned Keating that his pupils would come to hate him when they realised they were neither Mozart nor Michelangelo.  Perhaps Mr McAllister was the same teacher who told the pupil to rewrite his essay about the stud farm.

During the festive season I played my viola in a ceremony of lessons and carols which happened to take place in a high school for girls in Glasgow, and during a break in rehearsal I took a meander down a school corridor, glancing at the notice boards as I went.  They were full of “rah-rah” calls for increased endeavour.  Realise your potential.  Be all you can be, and more.  Make the difference, be the difference!  I paused to admire the names, embossed in gold on a bronze background, of excelling alumni, “duces” of the past.  And I felt a sense of envy for the pupils who would walk down this corridor, conscious of the propaganda all around them, and entirely impervious to it.  Blessed are the unambitious.  They know, and have always known, at some deep level in their being, that the people who peddle this stuff – well, their heads are full of s***. 

The glossy brochures for the independent schools are full of rah-rah calls, directed in this case at the parents who wish to maximise their children’s potential and, crucially, help them make useful acquaintance.  The freemasonry of the connected.  Sport, especially team sport, is integral.  It encourages esprit de corps.  And IT.  It must be state of the art.  Connectivity is everything.      

Philip Larkin wrote a poem, Born Yesterday, for Sally Amis.  He said to new-born Sally, without any sense of irony, far less misanthropy, or misogyny, May you be dull.  I think Larkin must have walked down the same school corridor as me, and realised that those who are capable of happiness, who have conjured the trick of life because they take life easy, they just don’t need any of that stuff.  They don’t need a dream, because they already know how to live in the present.  Oh yes, they are quite happy to be at school.  They will take from school that which they need.  Learn to read, learn to write, to count, acquire the basic skills that will allow you to navigate the world.  You might find you are interested in something, and good at something, and if these things happen to be one and the same, well, as Larkin would say, you’re a lucky girl. 

Yet all the while, they are living life, these people who have solved the trick of life, quite naturally, and easily, on a different plane.  They have friends.  They are sociable.  They probably like going to gigs.  They have a capacity for fun.  They understand, without even thinking about it, the fundamental importance of having fun.   

I was never like that.  I was always living in the future.  As the school motto had it, Spero meliora.  I hope for better things.  I still make New Year resolutions.  Next year, Jerusalem!  I continue to make black marks on paper and submit my plans for the stud farm to newspapers and publishers.  Perhaps I am like one of these guys on a television singing talent show, convinced of the righteousness of his destiny, whose sense of pitch is excruciating, but who can never be discouraged.  Simon Cowell shakes his head and says, “No. No. No.”  I don’t pay the slightest attention.  But perhaps I should have listened to that girl down by the salley gardens, who bid me take life easy.  

So I envy these people who don’t dream, and who live in and for the here and now.  They have achieved what Larkin called

…a skilled,

Vigilant, flexible,

Unemphasised, enthralled

Catching of happiness.       

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