There was a small moment last week that has stuck with me. I walked out of the back door to my office late in the afternoon after a particularly bad day – we all have them from time to time, and I am lucky enough to have mercifully few – and I looked up to see a Sixth Former walking towards me.
“Hello”, I said, “have you had a good day?”
“Hello Sir”, he said; “yes, thank you; how has yours been?” That was it.
Simply that was it. It is one of the many, but main, reasons why I love this school so much. A small piece of genuine and effortless politeness. Not just a nice hello back, but a warm request as to how the day had been for me too. Brilliantly easy; and yet it happens again and again here. I found myself leaving a bad day at the office with a huge smile my face – what a great place this can be.
When I speak at open mornings, I try to give prospective parents a flavour of what the school is like.
I always tell a simple story to start with. On my very first day at Bedford, at my first full school assembly, I gave out about 30 academic awards to boys who had done particularly well in the summer exams. The boys were all aged between 14-16 years old and, as they filed past, every single boy shook me firmly by the hand, looked me in the eye, smiled and said thank you. Now that might sound perfectly obvious to you, but, in fact, it is not. The other schools I have taught at would never have managed 100% – not even close. But here it happens, again and again. My predecessor had told me when I came that what he was most interested in was that boys could shake you firmly by the hand, look you in the eye, and hold a conversation. I still use this line – it is a good one: it implies confidence without arrogance; a sureness of foot; and also intelligence, curiosity and a breadth of knowledge – you cannot very well hold a conversation if you have none of these.
Manners are so important, and they always have been – and it is perhaps interesting that manners should continue to be quite so central to our message at Bedford School. About 650 years ago, a man called William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester and Chancellor of England, founded both New College Oxford and Winchester College. For both he chose the motto: Manners Makyth Man. The phrase itself seems to have come from around the time that Wykeham lived in the mid-14th Century, and some say that he even invented it himself.
But however it arose, he clearly valued it, and it remains as important today as it ever did. When Bedford was founded in 1552 (and some say that we, too, went back a few centuries earlier), we were linked to New College Oxford by our letters patent, which stipulated that the Head Master must be appointed by New College. The letters patent, which were signed by Edward VI (and you can see a copy in my meeting room, if you wish), go on to say that Bedford School is to provide “education, institution and instruction of Boys and Youths in Grammar, Literature and Good Manners.” Good manners were woven into our very purpose as a school from the moment it was born; and to this day the New College link lasts, via the Harpur Trust and our Governing body, where there are still New College appointees. In a lovely modern-day twist, the current Warden of New College (i.e. their own Head Master equivalent) is an Old Bedfordian; and on one of the stained glass windows (dating back to 1570) in his lodgings can be seen the phrase “Maner Makyth Man Q(uod) D(icit) Byshop Wykham” – Manners Makyth Man, so says Bishop Wykeham.
According to Dr Mark Griffith at New College, dictionaries differ as to what they think “manners” meant in its original context. The Oxford English Dictionary holds that it refers to ‘a person’s habitual behaviour or conduct, esp. in reference to its moral aspect; moral character, morals’, but the Middle English Dictionary gives it the more narrowly social sense of ‘a way of conducting oneself toward others; outward behaviour, deportment, bearing…proper conduct, good manners’ where no explicit link is drawn with moral principles. It is an interesting thought; but typically, today the word “manners” does not so much imply morality, as the way to conduct yourself.
Anyway, on a day to day basis here at school, you are brilliant at it – and it makes the school a happier, more enjoyable place to be. No school holds open more doors than you do; no school welcomes its visitors more disarmingly than you do; no school smiles and says hello better than you do.
Very well done, and keep at it – it is wonderful – never miss a beat. However, also make sure that you transfer it. It may be woven into the fabric of this school, and it may be evident every day to the teachers and visitors here, but you also need to show it where it cannot be seen – that is the greatest test of every habit. Do you also do it when nobody will notice; nobody will praise you for it; when there are no stakes to be won. Are you always polite to strangers; when you buy food in shops; when somebody is trying to get past you on the pavement – do you always smile and say hello then? Are you always polite to your peers, no matter who they are, or to the cleaners in the morning, or the groundsmen in the afternoon? Do you ever ask them how their day is going? Are you always polite online, on email or social media?
Do you step aside for the bin man, offer a hand to an elderly person struggling across the road, hold the door open for somebody you do not know? Because if you do, then not only will you be fulfilling everything that the founders of this school had hoped for, but you will also be doing your bit to make society as a whole that little bit more enjoyable for everybody. And, ultimately, as with all altruism more widely, it will also benefit you, because today as in any age, Manners still Makyth Man.