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Saturday, 29 February 2020

Educational School Trip or a Holiday?

The daylight was already filtering through the closed curtains of our small dormitory. A quiet conversation was whispered between us boys when either something was said or something happened which made me let out a whine. Afterwards, I felt nothing more of it, that is until Mrs Brown, fully dressed, strode into the bedroom with her repeated question:

Who squealed? Who squealed?

I admitted that I did. Mrs Brown, a rather tall, choleric primary school teacher then pulled back the bedclothes in which I was under and smacked my exposed thigh. Then she threw the covers back into place and walked out of the dormitory. At least I didn't cry.

Such an act of corporal punishment for what I have regarded as an insignificant offence was quite common around the late 1950s, into the 60s. But we, as the fledgeling Baby-Boom generation, regarded all this as normal, to be expected. Where was I back then? It was our primary school Summer-term two-week trip to Swanage in Dorset. As the school takes some pupils away every year, I remember at least two of these trips. To Swanage in Dorset. The other was at a hostel in Llangollen, North Wales.

Ballard Down cliff from Swanage beach.

Both these trips, which were paid for by my already hard-up parents, were meant to be both educational and for a chance of us inner-city Londoners to acquaint ourselves to the countryside and to the coast. And with quite a high level of disciplinary attitude. Whenever we were out and about, it was compulsory to walk in line with each pupil partnered up into twos, with the staff checking us over before told to move. In the evenings, before bed, we all had to fill in a diary we were each given, describing the place we had visited, even detailing the morning and afternoon weather.

At Swanage, I was immediately struck by the chalk cliffs of Ballard Down. I thought it was some kind of magic as we walked along Peveril Point from the esplanade, and watch from across the bay Old Harry Rock, the two Pinnacle Stacks and the southeast-facing cliffs beginning to unfold from beyond Ballard Point, as if like a telescope. As for being educational, up to this day, it's difficult to work out how knowledgeable our teachers were. Indeed, even at that young age, I was able to identify Ballard Down as a chalk headland, but geological terms such as Purbeck Stone and the very hard Portland Stone, both making up Durlston Bay, south of Swanage, as well as the coastline beyond, I doubt if our teachers knew anything of it all, let alone me. 

View of cliffs from Peveril Point, not seen from the beach. 

Like the time we were at Llangollen. The hostel is towered over by a high hill rising on the other side of the River Dee which flows through the town. The hill was topped by the ruins of Castle Dinas Bran, which gives a spectacular sight from our dormitory window. I asked the headmaster himself if he knew any history of the ruin. He apologised, unable to answer. But to be fair on him, which was long before the invention of the Internet, such research on the castle's history was very hard to come by.

When considering my own childhood experiences of school trips during term time - half-term in my day consisted of just Monday and Tuesday off, thus just a long weekend - I can't help having mixed emotions over those public schools and grammar schools sending their pupils to a skiing holiday in the Alps. Either I was grossly misinformed, or such holidays - and that's what they are, holidays in contrast to educational trips - I have thought such holidays had never existed during my boyhood days.

Physical activity? As a schoolboy, this meant long walks. And in Swanage, this included bathing in the sea at high tide, when there's hardly a beach between the lapping sea and the promenade wall. Although it was late Spring, it was cold and I couldn't swim. Furthermore, I was afraid of the abundance of seaweed washed up on the beach, discarded kelp fronds. From within the pile, (so I thought) some nasty creature may come out and bite! (And for the record, such abundance of kelp and sargassum fronds are now non-existent at our beaches. Indeed, I miss them.) 

What I thought was merely a day of leisure, a day at the (virtually non-existent) beach, it was much later I came to realise that this was part of a toughening up process the staff felt was a necessity in preparing us to face a challenging world as adults. And this included cold sea bathing with practically no other option. Even when we were staying at Llangollen, we were taken by coach to a beach which was infested with live jellyfish. We were still encouraged to swim. As far as I'm aware, there was no record of injury among us.

Kelp seaweed, abundant during my boyhood days.

Wind forward more than five decades and here I am, in full retirement. Although over such a timespan, memories linger. And so we are all under threat of a coronavirus epidemic, and it won't come as a surprise when this crisis is declared a global pandemic. What I have found so infuriating is that posh pupils from grammar and public schools have flown for a half-term skiing holiday to Northern Italy where unknown to them, the COVID-19 virus has already taken a foothold with the infection rapidly spreading.

These trips were proper holidays which, to me, are quite different from the school educational trips I had to go through. At all other times, I would have given them no other thoughts other than to wish them well. How they must have enjoyed themselves as each of them hurtling down a snow slope on two rails fixed to their feet. Then in the evening, it's the bar. Although too young for alcohol consumption, no doubt nightlife was provided for them. All paid for by parents who can afford the exorbitant price.

Apparently, say at a school of 300 students, about thirty go on such trips. Then at the start of the second half of term, a couple of students becomes unwell. The whole school is shut down and all 300 students quail with fear, pondering whether they might have picked up the virus, even if they did not fly out in the first place. And after the school closes down, those living within the vicinity start worrying. Then the rest of us begin to worry.

Maybe it's just me, who knows. But I believe that I would feel far more sympathy had those returning had been casualties of a Middle East war, who caught the infection whilst on the front line. Or volunteering medics out to lend assistance to Third World families suffering from malnutrition, who had picked up the virus. Or Christian missionaries and their volunteers unfortunate enough to become infected. I would even have greater sympathy towards those who flew out to be reunited with their families, or for those who were sent out by their employers to fulfil a contract. But a group of well-off students out on a skiing holiday? I think this what irks me most of all. The fact that skiing is quite an expensive activity which is patronised mainly by the middle-classes is the root cause of the rub.

And here I am, shaking in my shoes with fear, anxiety. Not just for me but for my beloved wife as well. Yes, I know. The death rate is only about 2% of all infected. But the majority who has died was mainly among the elderly and among those with existing health risks. Then what a shock when a newspaper announces that if the infection becomes widespread here in the UK, it's the younger and stronger patients who will be given priority for treatment, ahead of the elderly and the more vulnerable. A revival of eugenics in its own country of birth!

With my wife on recovery from breast cancer and myself, a senior citizen living with permanent heart failure, the risk from such an infection would be considerably higher. Therefore it really irks me to read that NHS doctors will give priority to treat a young student with wealthy parents and just back from Italy over my beloved who is in a worse condition due to an immune system weakened by chemotherapy.

But one thing I must be clear here. I'm fully aware that these pupils had no idea they were flying into an affected area. If they knew beforehand, no doubt they would have cancelled the trip or consider a switch to a safe destination. Therefore, with this in mind, I can't blame any of them. Not individually anyway. But I do blame the system. I know this is quite difficult, this blaming of an abstract quality instead of a person or a group of people. But I guess this is our British culture. Pampering the well-off student instead of throwing him into a cold, rough sea with piles of floating kelp and a few live jellyfish!

The ruin of Dinas Bran dominated our dorm window...

But holding resentment against the British class system will neither benefit nor hurt anyone other than myself. Such irksomeness will only destroy me, no one else. As far as I know, school trips of this calibre will continue to be organised, there will always be parents willing and able to pay. There is no hint whatsoever that skiing will go out of business - unless, of course, global warming will put and end of mountain snowfalls. But even if that was to happen, these elite bunch of pupils will find alternate activities in different destinations. It's all part of once privileged always privileged. 

Therefore, there is no benefit in holding a grudge, nor is there anything good in worrying or feeling anxious, having fears of the future. Instead, I can follow the footsteps of Jabez, an otherwise unknown Israelite found among a long list of names detailed in the first ten chapters of the Old Testament book of 1 Chronicles. In 4:10 an interruption of the long list of names is given for this Jabez, the wisest of a family of brothers. The name Jabez means pain in Hebrew, although it can also mean sorrow as in the KJV, as a more intense birth pain was felt by his mother at his birth, hence was given this name.

He simply turned to God and uttered this prayer:

Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.

And God granted his request.

This verse has been turned into a popular song which we sing at church. However, an extract from the Lord's prayer has been added to the original verse: Let your kingdom come, Let your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven...

It looks as if there is a hint of human nature within the thinking of the songwriter. Jabez prays: "Oh that you bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain." And that's it. Jabez did not condition his prayer with any form of a promise. A very simple request passed on to God, and this request was granted with no strings attached. That is the object of grace, undeserved mercy!

For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Romans 10:13.

Either this is true or it isn't. The only requirement is to believe that this Jesus of Nazareth crucified is the risen Christ. It's a heart belief, a conviction that Jesus has risen from the dead physically. And from such a heart, just call on God to rescue you, and that's it. Paul promises that all who call on the Lord will be saved.

Of course, Paul is applying this to salvation, but not necessarily Jabez. Instead, he asks God for earthly blessings, the enrichment of this life, the here-and-now. I don't think there's any difference between praying for salvation or earthly enrichment. By calling upon God's name both were answered. Jabez may not fully understand about the afterlife in the same way we do, but having called upon God, he was saved as well as looked after whilst alive.

I have been in fear of this coronavirus. Mixed with this fear was my anger directed at those posh pupils arriving back from a skiing holiday now spreading the virus and threatening us all. It was in this pit of darkness when I remembered this piece of Scripture and I read it. And then I prayed:

Oh Lord, bless us (Alex and myself) and protect us, O Lord, from the threat of this virus. May you guard us, protect us and keep us free from this infection and from all illness relating to it.
Bless us, O Lord, and keep us financially secure. In Jesus' Name. Amen.

As the weeks come and go, we'll see whether God will answer our prayer. In the meantime, I have felt relief from such fear and anxiety.  


  1. Dear Frank,
    Praise the Lord that He is in control, and that no harm can befall His children unless He allows it for our ultimate good and His ultimate glory. And yet I share your concern over those who are unnecessarily traveling to epidemic areas, needlessly exposing themselves and their communities to risk of infection.
    I was unaware that the UK has announced prioritizing treatment to young, healthy persons, even though the elderly and ill are at far greater risk for death. I agree with you that this is appalling and seems to hearken back to the eugenics movement.
    Thanks as always for the excellent post. Prayers for you both to remain safe and healthy. God bless,

  2. Thanks for this post. Cases are growing here, too. Let us trust God. Death and disease don’t surprise Him. He’s numbered our days (Ps. 139:16), so He’s always accomplishing His good purposes for us.