Remembrance at a Quaker School

As an historian and a bit of a student of the First World War one of the things that had really struck me and impressed me about Bootham looking in from the outside was its very open-hearted and open-handed approach to the whole issue of remembrance.

I had imagined (wrongly and to my shame) that being a Quaker school, Bootham would not have produced -or at least been somewhat embarrassed about having produced- many who went to fight in the world wars and other conflicts, given the importance Quaker peace testimony and the inherent opposition within Quakerism to violence to solve anything. It is most famously expressed in the words that we see on the wall every time we gather together for our Quaker Morning Meeting.

Not so. Not so at all.

I was surprised to find that those who fought and died are honoured equally alongside those who refused to fight but died in noncombatant roles. Equal place in the school’s esteem is offered to those who risked or suffered death bearing arms, and those who risked imprisonment and death by following their conscience, thus refusing to have anything at all to do with the violence of war.

Earlier this week I popped up to the library to look at the Bootham war memorials.

The two memorials make no distinction between combatants and noncombatants. The inscription on both honours all Old Scholars, regardless of the role they played -or out of conscience deliberately chose not to play- in those wars, and not just those who died.

It reads: 'In memory of all old Bootham boys who have faithfully striven to follow the light and especially of these, our fallen comrades'. Then are simply recorded the deaths of those who ‘followed the light’ upon serious reflection and with sincerity…but nonetheless took different paths. Men who took up arms and died, and those who would not take up arms and still died supporting their countrymen, serving in the Friends Ambulance Brigade, for example.

So to poppies. I have thinking about what it was appropriate for me to wear as Head of a Quaker school.

The red poppy specifically symbolises the sacrifice of the British and Empire armed forces in the two major wars of the twentieth century and subsequent conflicts. It does not signify support for war nor is it red because it represents blood (the Royal British Legion is clear about both of those things on its website). Part of its symbolism is to express the hope that past conflict might lead to future peace, as poppies grew miraculously in the worst of the killing fields of the first world war, even during the fighting.

The white poppy remembers all those who fell in war -combatant, pacifist or civilian- in any country. It does not just hope for peace but represents a pledge or promise by the wearer to work to prevent conflict and for peace in all respects. It does not dishonour those who bravely fought, nor does it idolise those who bravely went against the flow and chose not to. Rather, like the Bootham war memorials, it accepts and recognises that people 'followed the light' and that this light might have led them down differing paths.

As I researched this, I was heartened to read on the British Legion website the following: ‘We have no objection to white poppies, or to any group expressing their views. We see no conflict in wearing the red poppy alongside the white poppy.’

So I decided for myself, arising from my own reflection, that is was not contradictory to wear both a white and a red poppy. So I have done. And not actually because I am Head of a Quaker School but because I am Chris Jeffery, and that’s what I believe the light is showing me. So that’s my choice…to have worn a white poppy for the first time this year, but to wear both, because I am British and proud to be so; because I both hope for future peace and also want to pledge myself to do what I can to ensure it, day-to-day in my work and personal life and in my contribution to wider society too. It’s the right decision for me to do so.

My challenge to Bootham students this year has been this: each of us has to think for ourselves what is right for us and be deliberate about it. What’s right for you?

And why?

By Christopher Jeffery, Headmaster, Bootham School