The Punch That Ali Never Threw

It was another time, another place and I was another person. Way before I was a teacher and I could sit in the pub in the afternoon. This time in London, somewhere, I can’t remember, wasting time with an old friend. The radio played a local station and we more or less ignored it. Until, after a sports report which told us nothing, we heard that Mohammed Ali was signing books in Tottenham Court Road that afternoon. An opportunity not to be missed, we finished our drinks (probably) and got a ludicrously expensive cab across the city. Sure enough, half an hour later, a large man shuffled out off a limo and blinked in the afternoon sunshine. It was Ali. We turned into little children in his presence.

I’d never been so close to greatness since – as I found out later – I’d barged passed a young Diego Maradona to get Asa Hartford’s autograph at Hampden Park. Yep. In awe of Ali, we stood on a wall, joining in with the chant, ‘Ali!, Ali!’ as he mock sparred with each fan as he passed. And then he looked up: he stared directly at me; he threatened a punch, before grinning that incredible, life-affirming, beautiful grin of his. I could have cried, probably did a little. He was well into his illness but it is a moment which I think about a lot.

The other punch that Ali never threw was the famous one when, standing over a falling George Foreman, he could have battered him again. Lesser boxers would have done; Foreman certainly would have. But Ali stood back, the dignity and respect for his losing opponent more important than causing him more pain. He had done his job; he didn’t need to hammer home the point. He had no need to show off further and flaunt his superiority. What an incredible human being he was. But if you look around your school staff you will see similar qualities in your teachers. The ones who quietly, but wonderfully, teach kids all day every day.

They share that quiet dignity that means we never hear from them. They don’t need to shout loudly because they raise the bar for kids every day of their lives; perhaps not comfortable in the limelight, certainly unlike Ali, but they don’t need to push themselves into that limelight. I’ve recently been in the position of attempting to organise whole school CPD and it becomes clear that many of our best teachers are the best teachers because they don’t reveal themselves to us. I get frustrated when they don’t want to share their talents but have come to understand and respect them all the more for it.

So, keep in mind that those who push themselves to the front of the crowd, who stand on the wall and chant, if you like, are not always the best people to listen to. Sometimes they are. But think of those quiet geniuses who turn up every day and approach  their teaching with a dignity and respect for others that we should all learn from. They have a punch but often choose not to use it.

A Referendum on Decency

I suppose I should be used to it now: waking up with a sick lump in my stomach. The ‘No’ vote in the Scottish Referendum; a Cameron majority; Brexit. This feels a little bit worse though. I don’t normally write about politics – although you could argue that education is always political – but my dad is American – he spent over twenty years in the U.S. Navy – and I have dual nationality so cut me some slack here. Trump has just been announced as president. We should all have known it would come to this. He is a product of our environment.

However, I recognise those who voted for him; some of them anyway. Yes, those that are the dispossessed, the long term unemployed, the ’poorly educated’, who feel they have had a raw deal. Things are not like they used to be. They want those happy times back. They think the angry, intolerant, racist, misogynist, disabled -mocking reality TV star is the man to get them there because that’s what he wants too. Don’t worry about the details, the facts. They’ve seen their industrial heartlands turned into wastelands. They’ve seen their communities devastated by something called progress. But progress happens to other people: different people. Now they believe it is their turn.

But they’re mistaken. He won’t help them. Instead we have a world which is that little bit more intolerant, that little bit more misogynistic, that little bit more distrustful. I see it every day. Selfishness, rudeness, lack of empathy. When we’re surprised when kids say ‘Please’ or ‘Thank You’. When someone fails to hold the door open for us. When someone cuts in on you without signalling on the road home. The lack off awareness of others when you’re on the phone on the train. Trump is a product of that. We want things and we want them now. Those with differences, or weaknesses, will need to get out of the way.

The political satirist Bill Maher described this election as a referendum on decency. If it is, look what has happened. America elected the guy who mocked the disabled, who vowed to rid the country of Muslims, who confessed to sexually assaulting women. They elected the guy who promised to lock up his opponent, to refuse to accept the result if he lost, to build a wall. A referendum on decency? I’ve spoken to every class I’ve taught today about this and told them that. The only thing we can all do to counter that horrible, sick feeling we may have is to be kind to others, to be better, to refuse the hateful rhetoric. It’s the least we can do.