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From Mr. Dyer: Gratitude for the New Year

11 January 2016

With the winter celebrations just behind us, many will be focusing on making resolutions for 2016. The festivals and celebrations of late December and early January are a time of hope and new beginnings. 

Festivals have always featured around the time when midwinter gives way to increasing daylight, and we look forward to rebirth in the forests and fields and crops that sustain us. In Scandinavia, Yule has long been celebrated from 21st December, the winter solstice. In Germany, the god Oden, a feared and antagonistic character, was honoured in the mid-winter months. In ancient Rome, they honoured Saturn, the god of agriculture, in a festival of Saturnalia, lasting from late December and continuing through January.  Romans also celebrated the birth of Mithra the god of the unconquerable sun, around this time of year, as the sun started to return from its winter sleep. Christians, of course, celebrate a very special birth, a birth intended to bring new hope to the world. 

This has always been a time of celebration. It has also been a time of hope and of optimism. So, let me discuss smelly classrooms for a moment, and see if I can make a connection between smelly classrooms and optimism and hope. 

Those of us fortunate enough to spend our days surrounded by the buzz of learning in a school environment may have, from time to time, experienced a smelly classroom.  Others may remember smelly classrooms from our school days. This is when you walk into a classroom at the start of period 3, or after break, and there is a slightly funny smell. The class before had obviously been very active in their learning, and the collected sweat and toil of 20 students had left a slight scent in the air, a tang. The odd thing this is, however, the teacher hadn’t noticed. The class before hadn’t noticed. And 20 minutes into the lesson, you no longer noticed it yourself.  Have you ever experienced that? 

This is a common phenomenon. If you expose people to a smell, or a sound or a sight for long enough, they don’t notice it any more. Have you noticed that other people’s houses smell different? But yours doesn’t? Have you been in a hotel room where the air-conditioner or the heater makes a funny sound, but on the second or third night, you don’t notice?   

It has been demonstrated that our senses become accustomed to sights, sounds, smells and tastes that persist. Anything that is there all the time, we get used to and very soon, we stop noticing. When you first put shoes on a young child, the child complains – it feels strange and uncomfortable. Until this moment, how many of you were conscious of the shoes on your feet, while reading this article? 

I remember my first ever real underwater experience, sailing in the Maldives in 1987. The colours and patterns were so new, so intense, that I dreamt colours and fish and movement night after night. I still go diving and enjoy the colours, the movements and the shapes, but it’s not so intense, and I don’t have full-colour dreams of fish and coral. I'm used to it. 

Many of you take plane journeys around the world? You’ll be sat in a comfortable armchair, watching a film on your own personal touch-screen TV. People will be bringing you food and drink. But you are 10 km above ground, moving at close to 1000km/h, in a metal tube! And it’s powered by a liquid made from compressed decayed trees. And they set fire to that liquid so that it explodes and that somehow pushes you along. How does that work? And how does that touch screen work? It’s amazing. But I guess you’re used to it. We all are. We take things for granted. 

The problem is this.The more we take for granted, the more we allow ourselves to get used to things, the more we expect. The harder it is to capture that excitement and wonder and delight that we all have when we come to something for the first time. Just like the smell in the classroom, the feeling of shoes on our feet, the sensation fades into the background. So, let’s see if we can avoid that trap, and turn things around. What happens when we remind ourselves of the wonderful nature of things we sometimes forget, the things we don’t see any more, the things we get used to and take for granted?  

Psychologists have shown that it works wonders. It works wonders when we remind ourselves of the ordinary things that are really quite extraordinary. People who habitually or deliberately reflect on the ordinary things in their lives become happier, more optimistic about the future and actually become physically healthier and fitter.   

Many religions know this and people practise daily contemplation of the ordinary day-to-day things. They practise gratitude. Thanksgiving, which we celebrated only recently in North America is exactly that – being grateful, giving thanks. Buddha said, “If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change.” We should appreciate the extraordinary in the commonplace. 

So, before looking forward to the new year, I reflect on what I am grateful for this past year in my life in school. I could list the extraordinary: the massive outpouring of support for the migrants and the refugees appeal, for example. The surprise of first snow and the appearance of reindeer at the Christmas Fair. We could, and should, also focus on the ordinary – the things we have become used to. 

  • The new teachers and the new students who have come into our lives and enriched our community with their friendship, their expertise and their talents.
  • The huge range of activities and trips and events and performances to be involved in and enjoy.
  • Each day, the creative, engaging, stimulating powerful lessons.  
  • The cheerful students who say,  “Good morning,” as they come into school and happily say, “Goodbye, see you tomorrow,” as they leave.  What polite and friendly young people they are!

What are you grateful for? What do you take for granted? What have you become so used to, so much so that you no longer see it? What should none of us ever get used to?

Don’t get used to your friends – you and they will change and grow up soon enough.  

Don’t get used to the people you learn from – they are exceptional people. 

Don’t get used to your experiences – they are treasures that help make you who you are.

Focus on special things that happen every day. 

Be grateful.