What do a pig, a hen, and a merchant navy ship have in common? That’s the question I began Head’s Assembly with this week as we gathered in the Cathedral Quire on Monday. There were a good many excellent suggestions offered (one of the finest being given by a member of Year 8 who had, as it later turned out, misheard ‘ship’ as ‘sheep’, and who was subsequently very perplexed when I gently suggested that ‘they’re all farmyard animals’ was not the right answer). After many good and feasible suggestions, I shared with the School my own answer:
In the early 1600s Dutch sailors noticed that, if ever there were a ship-wreck or if ever things fell overboard in a storm, it was always the pigs and the hens that would make it safely to shore. This may well have been, of course, because the hens and the pigs tended to be transported in wooden crates – these crates would float and be brought in on the tide – but the sailors wanted a share of that luck in being able to survive should they have to abandon ship. And so they had a tattoo of a pig and a hen on their feet: with these creatures permanently with them, they felt sure they would always be able to make it to land.
The tattoo of the pig and the hen made these sailors feel safe: it was comforting to them, it emboldened them, and it gave them courage. That then got us thinking about the other things that people did/had to help them feel safe.
There’s clothing, we said. Some Christians, for example, might choose to wear a crucifix, both as a symbol of their faith and because it helped them feel safe and closer to God. I taught a boy once who would always wear a hat. It didn’t matter what the weather was like or if we were inside or out; Chris always wore his red bobble hat. Why? Same principle: he felt safe.
And, we agreed, people have things that make them feel safe. Maybe a treasured item, maybe a soft toy, maybe a blanket at night. And I learnt a sobering lesson at this point – that it is neither cool nor endearing when the Headmaster brings his teddy bear to Assembly. But bring him I did, and I offered him as an example of the kind of thing that people keep with them to help them feel safe.
What about places, we thought? Do people have particular places where they feel safe? A bedroom? A church? A temple? A library? A particular end of a particular sofa? Sometimes, we agreed, we each of us seek out special places where we can bury ourselves away and feel safe.
And then we thought that, if there are things, clothing, possessions and spaces which help us feel safe, surely there must be people as well? We all of us have someone with whom we feel unconditionally safe, comforted, loved and protected. Maybe it’s someone at home, maybe it’s someone at school, maybe it’s someone we don’t see very often – but that person is so fundamental to our emotional wellbeing and our positive mental health. Feeling safe – it matters.
Given all of that, I asked, how amazing would it be if somebody’s special person was us? What a privilege to be the one person in someone world who makes them feel safe. Let’s always aim to be that person, I challenged the pupils. Go and think about the things that you do and the things that you say, and work hard to be somebody else’s safe person. You may never know it, but you just might be someone’s pig or somebody’s hen.