Perception; Did we know we were happy when we were happy?

Remember then: there is only one time that is important – Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power.” Leo Tolstoy

This year seems less about time slipping by, and for many in our corner of Europe, it’s been more about time being frozen in an attempt to turn back time to an era very few remember and even less want to recreate. To be sitting at the end of the summer of 2022, reflecting back over a year that is already two-thirds of the way through, does seem unreal. For certain, 2022 has changed the trajectory of Europe since the 24th February. Although for most in Eastern Europe it was obvious back in 2008 and 2014, the west does catch on eventually. 

In a conversation with a dear colleague and friend in Moldova this week, we both talked about the certainty of the uncertainties of looking ahead to the coming autumn and winter.  Putting the ongoing war in Ukraine aside, we expect continual rising prices, an energy crisis only going to get worse and as the international order we knew loses its cohesion and rationale even further, we see the spiraling conflicts from Armenia-Azerbaijan, Kosovo-Serbia and Taiwan-China back in the news cycle. 

I have spent a good deal of this summer wondering about the messages, comments and assemblies I will give and deliver to my Heritage community when we all stand together on the glorious day of education on the 1st September with the promise of a new academic year and bright opportunities to grasp.  We talk a lot about “imposter syndrome” in education as school leaders, it would seem this is a label stretching across to our values now dealing with some of the issues we face in the 2020s. But as we do in schools, we dig deep and we know our international values are right & will prevail.

Right now, in answer to the question in my blog title, I would say a resounding yes. It was there back in my beloved Wales, with my children, dog, Gen, Les, walking around the busy bustle of Llani market on a Saturday, listening to people’s stories, buying things we don’t need, going into a wonderful bookshop that is still there, surviving Covid and Amazon Prime in a small mid Welsh market town.  It was seeing the Batik exhibition in the local arts centre and remembering how beautiful this form of art was when I was very happy working with schools in Java. And it was definitely a Twinks pork pie from his shop in the arcade under the town hall that is straight out of Trumpton.

It has taken a very “normal” summer in 2022 to make me realise the importance of counting time now and as Tolstoy said, the power we have in seizing these moments for ourselves. It was sitting in a cafe in Llanidloes in July, with my old teacher and mentor, Les Jones, when he said the words of wisdom, that he has said to me on many occasions since he first taught me aged 11; “do we know we are happy when we are happy?”, that made me stop and actually think about it.

It was also by the sea, in the rain and wind, at wonderful Aberystwyth.  An alma mater, that I could never tire of visiting or remembering the very happy days as a postgraduate student there by the sea embarking on a teaching career.  It was hot tea to keep warm at the Prom Cafe  (yes, summer in the UK really can be like this and no bubble gum ice cream allowed) and watching my children jump and play in the cold sea.  We were very happy in these powerful moments of life as a family.  

It was the conversations together around dinner in Les’s beautiful old house after a good dinner.  Catching up with how my children got through another academic year and all shifting up in September.  Playing games of Uno. It was in the warmth of the log burner in that ancient fireplace that has warmed so many families over generations in its hearth, but was now making my dog Dylan toast from his walk up the mountain in the rain.  We were happy.

Back home in Bristol, sitting in the evening sun, surviving the bizarre but less uncommon heatwaves, enjoying late dinner together outside, the garden at its best, sleeping late, walking the dog together and working from home as school hadn’t stopped in Moldova and we continued to work as a global education community.

Often we don’t always appreciate something until we see it through the eyes of others and their perception, so having old (and new) friends from Germany come and visit in August was perfect.  Perfect to go and see my glorious long adopted home city of Bristol again on a walking tour.  They say you can never lose your history teacher’s soul and they are right.  From the docks to Queen’s Square, to Welsh Back and Long John Silver to St Nick’s market.  To the plinth and legacy of Colston to the city museum and a drink in Browns.  Clifton has never looked so lovely in the sunshine as it did this summer. The bridge is the bridge. The symbol of this amazing city we live in. 

Naturally, being German, all the classic cuisine was served from fish and chips, to tikka masala to a full English breakfast.  Afternoon tea following a walking tour of Regency Bath, in the garden, in the sunshine, and a game of Uno, certainly was a moment when we knew we were happy. As much as the tour of Dyrham Park and the Cotswolds, but not the prices in HRH, Prince Charles’s shop in Tetbury. And time really is too short to fuss over how to say scone!

If we are to get through the rest of 2022 with our sanity bolstered to deal with this very uncertain world, and yes, it really does look like “pork markets” herself, is going to be the next PM of the UK, then we need the power of our moments and happiness. Even a neutral took delight in the Women’s Euros and the incredible English lionesses under the phenomenal leadership of coach Sarina Wiegman.  The cheers from the boys at the back of my house as England made it 2-1 in the final was such a lovely moment.  I wonder if the die hard Brexiteers supporting this famous win know the coach is from the Netherlands? 

I know this win and example has made many more feminists amongst boys, as well good role models for all children. The diversity of the Commonwealth games, with the para Commonwealth games running together, is a fantastic moment of perception change much needed for the 2020s narrative. Now there is a future assembly for the autumn. And I get to say I competed at the Birmingham Alexander Stadium many times as a youth for Telford Athletic Club & Salop County in discus and sprints. A long time ago now but I definitely knew I was happy then in those moments. Time seemed endless.

My children are enjoying the surf and sea of Croyde as they camp in Devon this August and despite being left at home to look after the dog and cats, as well as to finish preparations for the new academic year and my return to Moldova for the August staff training, I know they are happy, which makes me happy.  And actually less powerless because in this World right now, it really is about light over dark. 

I have been toying with a couple of ideas for articles this summer along the lines of succession planning and emotional intelligence.  So I was pleased when Irena Barker, editor at ISMP asked me to write a series of leadership articles, one of which is on the need for schools to have good succession planning. Dan Worth, senior editor at the TES, very kindly accepted my article on emotional intelligence as a key skill for a modern school leader and the links to both are here. 


And as it is inevitable in life, I found myself driving across the old Severn Bridge at the start of August, for the first time in three years since I left Wyedean.  That amazing view westwards, the Severn running into the sea, the Forest of Dean and the Welsh hills, all combined to complete a circle of reflection about my happiness then and now.  I have to confess, there were many days, too many days, when I drove eastbound to Bristol in M4 rush hour traffic, across that bridge, when I definitely wasn’t happy or felt I had power. But such is life and we determine our individual fates, as far as we can. Why my 4th year at the brilliant Heritage and my second adopted home of Moldova is about to commence. 

Driving through the Wye Valley to the glorious ruins of Tintern Abbey, with my family and German guests was such a moment of happiness this summer. Days like this can last us for so long. After tea and cake at the Old Station at Tintern, we finally got to Raglan Castle. One of my children’s favourites and scene of many a good day out as a family and for school groups I have taken there from Americans to Russians. 

We had the castle to ourselves for the last 45 minutes and the history student of 30 years ago came flooding back to me as I listened to my kids run around the elegant ruins of a once proud border castle of the Herbert family. I imagined the people who once lived there in splendour would have contemplated the eventual fate of Raglan.  Would a young Henry Tudor, living there, know that one day at Bosfield he would start one of the most famous dynasties in British history?  Was he happy as a boy? As a man? As a king? 

The drive back east across the new bridge to hotdogs, salad, real German potato salad, and of course the inevitable Uno, will be a day my kids can draw upon when they need to think of a happy moment. To measure another moment against in their later lives. To have a different perception. This is the real powerful stuff of life. This is the stuff that really matters in our lives and we need to get our power back through these times. 

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