Learning from the Mistakes of Others

From the Headmaster's Desk, October 16, 2017

I do try to be positive and uplifting in these assemblies, but this morning I want to speak about something that is bothering me.  I don’t like negativity, but please view the following as righteous indignation.  My intention, as ever, is to advise you on how to live your best life. It has long been my belief that leaders and people in positions of authority should be held to a higher standard.

It has long been my belief that leaders and people in positions of authority should be held to a higher standard.

Whether in politics, sport, industry or even artistic celebrities, people in leadership roles are, by their very nature, role models.  And I’m conscious that, as young men and women like yourselves navigate their way in the world and try to make sense of life, they need good examples to emulate.  We all need heroes that we admire, and help us aspire to be better versions of ourselves.

And what has annoyed me in recent months are celebrities and leaders in society who have behaved badly.  Everyone I’m about to mention – Wayne Rooney, Taylor Swift, Ben Stokes, and others, are well known to you, but these people have not been behaving like role models, at least not this term.

As our term began, in the first week of September, Wayne Rooney was arrested at 2am, driving a car whilst three times over the legal alcohol limit.  Worse than this, he was driving someone else’s car – a young woman’s, who was not his wife.  Why was he driving another woman’s car, drunk, in the middle of the night, whilst his pregnant wife was at home?

Needless to say, Rooney’s statement was full of remorse and apologies.  He made a terrible mistake.  He apologised to his family, his manager and everyone at Everton.  He also apologised to all his fans and everyone who supported his career.  As he should.  He is the former England captain and, at times, has carried the hopes of the country.  He has let us all down, in a scandalous, reckless and irresponsible manner.

He has been banned from driving for two years, sentenced to 100 hours of community service and fined £300,000.  A harsh punishment, but as the judge in the Magistrates Court said, ‘I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you this was a serious offence.’

Even more than his alleged infidelity, I’m upset that he made the decision to drive whilst drunk.  When I worked at another school, I attended a funeral for a victim of drunk driving.  An 18-year-old in Year 13 drove home from a night club, crashed, killed her best friend and put another Sixth Former in a coma for six weeks.  Later that year, she went to prison, not university.  She is out of prison now but she has to live with the fact that her decision to drive that evening led to the death of her best friend.  That funeral, in a school, was one of the worst days of my life.

I know this is a serious topic but there is a lesson here for all of you.  Don’t get in a car with someone who has been drinking.  Don’t let someone you care about get in a car after they have been drinking.  If there is ever a doubt, then get a taxi.  Your life, I assure you, is worth more than the cost of the taxi.

Your life, I assure you, is worth more than the cost of the taxi.

Now, moving on to another disappointment of the autumn:  Taylor Swift.  Now, I’m going to be honest, I’ve been a big fan of Taylor Swift and I love her music.  Her song ‘Shake it Off’ sends a wonderful message about bouncing back from negative comments, ignoring bullying and retaining a positive attitude in the face of naysayers.  It’s an uplifting song with an uplifting message.  Not surprisingly it has been viewed on Youtube almost two and a half BILLION times, making it in the top ten most viewed videos on Youtube.  I’ve danced to this song with my family, including my young daughters.

But in late August, as term began, Taylor came out with her recent single ‘Look What you Made me Do’.  Instead of shaking off the criticisms and difficulties, Swift comes out as an evil, vengeful overlord, covered in snakes, with a vindictive, negative song, including overtones of suicide.  I could not be more disappointed.

I do think that it is right to stand up when someone mistreats you, and you should speak out.  But this dark and cynical number sends the wrong message to young people.  The only clear idea in this video is that Taylor is bitter and savours revenge; I preferred the Taylor that was shaking it off, too busy making good music to be bogged down in celebrity feuds.

As one of my best friends used to say to me when I was down or upset, ‘Shake your tail, you’re better than that’.  This is a reference to water off a duck’s back.  Shake it off.

There have been other depressing incidents this term, including Ben Stokes fighting outside a night club at 2am, just hours after scoring 73 as England beat West Indies in the final one day international.  Another national sporting hero, shamed for drunken antics, and likely to miss the Ashes now as he faces a criminal investigation.  The video of fighting is all the more saddening as you hear his teammate repeatedly shouting, ‘Stokes, enough!’  Millions of cricket fans were feeling the same way.  Why didn’t he just walk away and save his career?

And I could not finish without mentioning the Harvey Weinstein scandal that broke last week.  If you haven’t heard about this, the bottom line is that one of the most powerful and influential men in Hollywood has been sexually harassing and assaulting women in the film industry for decades.

I also hope that Weinstein’s public humiliation makes the world a better place for women, and warns all men that women should be treated with respect and dignity, and the consequences for behaving otherwise are serious, in terms of both public shame and legal consequences.

Celebrities behaving badly are not role models.  Fortunately, there are plenty of celebrities out there doing good things.  Also this term, Leonardo DiCaprio donated £20 million to climate-change charities; Bill and Melinda Gates have given billions to improve the lives and health of the developing world; and Bono, the lead singer of U2, who I was lucky to see perform over the summer, has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times for his charitable work fighting aids, raising money for famine victims in Ethiopia, and supporting education for girls in the developing world, amongst other noble causes.

I’m conscious that the world can be a confusing place, especially as you mature in the teenage years and work out what is right and wrong.  To be honest, the world is often still a confusing place for me, when sometimes people saying the wrong things get more publicity than those doing the right things.  But remember that right and wrong do exist, and it is always better to do the right thing.

But remember that right and wrong do exist, and it is always better to do the right thing.

Just ask Rooney, Stokes or Weinstein, all of whom are in an awkward place with both the law and society for their poor choices.  These celebrities, on these occasions, have demonstrated how we must not behave.

So let us learn from these mistakes of others, and live better lives because of it.  Have a good week, and half term, when it comes.

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