I have been a teacher for 25 years, a dad for 17 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about why putting your family first matters.
To publish this has been a tough call. After a week of talking it through with him, my son Joe agreed to me posting this article. The tipping point came when one of my closest colleagues read it and said, It MUST be published at some point soon because too many of us are working ourselves into the ground. Joe remarked that what happened to him and me probably happens to lots of people…
An Arthur Miller Life Lesson
“People are much more similar than you think. As I go around the world and ask those I meet what matters most to them, they all say their family comes first.” So said the CEO of Barclays, Antony Jenkins, to his sixth form student audience on a recent edition of the Today programme. But I’m not sure everyone who says his or her family comes first really means it; I now know that I didn’t.
When I began blogging back in June 2012 I used the This Much I Know format, plagiarised from the Observer magazine. That first blog post resonated with many readers and had over 1,800 views in the first twelve hours. This final bullet point seemed to touch people most:
To some extent, I missed my eldest son growing up. Joe is 15 years old now and a young man. When I cuddle him I can’t believe the width of his shoulders and he squirms away as quick as he can. He thinks I’m an idiot! Read Death of a Salesman if you want to know why you should spend more time with the people you love. I taught it last year and now, whenever my sons ask me to do something, I do it, irrespective of my work.
Between 1998, when I was appointed Deputy Headteacher at Huntington School in York, and a February day in 2011 when Miller’s play awoke me, Joe morphed from a two year old toddler into a young man; metaphorically I had slept through the whole process.
We always wanted our house to be an open house. We planned for it to ring with youthful laughter. We hoped it would be a second home to all our sons’ friends. We imagined it alive with bright, young faces. But I put my work first and our dream died.
I didn’t mean to be a misery, but I know I was. I would take Joe to football on a Sunday morning when he played for the Under 9s knowing I had a Technology College bid to write. I would be moody when the kick off was delayed. I would be mad with him when he didn’t try. I felt like he was wasting my time, time when I could have been working.
When his mates turned up, I would snap at them when they were rowdy, growl at them when they had a popcorn fight in the front room, bark at them to be quiet in the early days during the rare sleepovers at ours, because I had to get up early to work. They soon grew afraid and Joe went to their houses to watch the footie, to hang out, to lark around because their folks were much more fun.
Despite the obvious signs of failure to connect with Joe, I ploughed on with my career. I secured one headship then another. Headships are all consuming things; you’re a Headteacher every minute of every day. And my designation became Joe’s vehicle for abuse. “Stop being a Headteacher” he would mutter with no attempt to conceal his contempt for me.
I justified my work obsession through the middle-class lifestyle it afforded us as a family, even though I knew that was nonsense. I ended up working even longer hours; coming home late meant I didn’t get to eat tea with my wife and the boys. In so many ways I was an absent father, though present every day. And the gulf between me and Joe grew wider.
So it was, teaching A level English on that day in February 2011, that Miller’s insight changed my life. Near the end of Death of a Salesman Willy Loman clashes with his son Biff; as they fight Biff suddenly kisses him. Willy is astounded. He says, (after a long pause, astonished, elevated): Isn’t that — isn’t that remarkable? Biff — he likes me!
We were watching the Dustin Hoffman film version of the play before we got to read the text. I’d never seen the play and so, with the students, was watching it for the first time. Biff’s kiss and Willy’s response destroyed me. I had to leave the room, weeping uncontrollably. The students were bemused whilst my colleague Jane provided me tissues in wordless confusion as I fled to an office across the corridor.
A myriad of different issues surfaced in that classroom: my own Postman dad’s sense of futility having spent 42 years delivering letters and dying three years before he could retire to tend his roses; my sense of failure at being unable to forge a healthy relationship with my son; the hope that Joe still loved me.
The next lesson I took my father’s alarm clock into class – the same despised alarm clock that had rung him out of bed at 4 am every working day – and talked about it as an objective correlative for my relationships with both my father and my son; the whole sense that we can waste time without choosing and once it has passed, it’s passed. How I wanted for my son something wonderful and I felt I’d mucked the whole thing up.
As I said in that original blog, I decided that day that if either son ever asked me to do something I would do it, no matter how much work I had and I’ve stuck to that principle fiercely. It’s meant me going to bed later, getting up earlier and doing some work stuff just well enough, but that’s OK – the school’s doing fine. Consequently, since that moment in my English class nearly three years ago, my relationship with Joe has, to a great extent, healed.
And last night the 17 year old Joe had his mates round. They commandeered the front room, played cards to awful music and laughed like we’d wanted them to laugh all those lost years ago when, before Arthur Miller taught me a life lesson, I’d have claimed to have been one of those Antony Jenkins types who always put their family first.