Charles Handy makes an educated guess…
The hero of this story is a little girl in south India. I have no idea what her name is or anything about her and I hope this story is true because it deserves to be, it is so sweet. But I found it in an old copy of the Reader’s Digest so I can’t promise that it is more than a fable.
The little girl, aged seven or eight, was at the back of the class in her primary school in Kerala, scribbling away, when her teacher said to her, “What are you doing child?”
She said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.”
The teacher said, “Don’t be silly, no one knows what God looks like.”
“They will do in a minute,” said the little girl, “when I’ve finished this,” and closed her exercise book.
What self-confidence, what bravura. In that great poem Invictus by William Henley, the last two lines say:
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
This little girl, who could neither read nor say those words, absolutely had it.
And what a wise teacher. I am ashamed to say that if I had been the teacher I would have, in order to widen their horizons (but also to impress the class), whisked them all off to Rome, to the Vatican, to Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the chapel, where he portrays God as a not very nice old man. They probably would have been impressed but they would have learnt very little, unless I had related it to their own experience.
I am fond of misquoting Alexander Pope when I say, “education is experience understood upon reflection”. We can help with the reflection but we can’t give them the experience. That’s theirs.
I spent three years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston being lectured by some of the great names in Economics and Psychology, but to be truthful, the only things I remember are the essays I wrote myself, interpreting my own experience.
Education is about drawing out of people what they already know but don’t understand, not putting in what they will forget immediately.
I have to remind myself of that when I give lectures. Perhaps it’s just as well that I don’t address primary school classes, but only middle-aged executives who are too immersed in their own lives to want to talk about anything else anyway.
But back to the little girl in Kerala. I wonder what she drew in that exercise book. Was it her daddy, or maybe her mummy? Or did she draw a picture of a king, sitting on a cloud perhaps, with a crown on his head?
But you know what, I suspect what she drew was a picture of her teacher. Certainly that would have been true of our home in southwest London if I’d asked my little daughter, at the age of seven, to draw a picture of God. It would definitely have looked like Miss Goddo, her form teacher. Miss Goddo had the equivalent of papal infallibility and certainly outranked me, a mere professor of London University.
When at some meal time, my daughter said, “Miss Goddo says…” I braced myself, for I was about to be told that Miss Goddo disagreed with something I had said. And Miss Goddo certainly knew the word of God.
And I am very grateful for her. Because again, she drew out my daughter’s imagination, and provided a sort of guide rail up the hill of learning, of life, to cling onto if needed.
When she eventually died, we were all bereft.
There is an inscription on the wall of the oldest classroom in Britain – which happens to be in Eton College, where you can still sit on the same benches they did in the 16th century – which says, in Latin but I will translate, “It is the job of the teachers to bring out the genius that is in each pupil.”
Find the genius in anybody in the classroom, that’s the job of the teacher.
Luckily it was what my teachers found in me, such as it was, and it changed my life.
In fact my life has been dictated by people who expected more of me than I thought I could deliver, but believed I had the capacity to do it. In a sense that’s what management and leadership is all about, finding the gift in others, and getting them to use it.
Charles Handy’s books on management have sold over a million copies and have changed the way we view business and society. His latest book, 21 Letters, is now available in paperback and on audiobook. Read more here.
Charles suffered a stroke in 2019 following the death of his wife in a car crash in 2018. This piece was dictated to his carer.