Last week at The Reader we had Thinkday, a misnomer on two counts: it’s two days, not one, and we don’t simply think on them.
Staffers at lunch
Twice a year we gather staff together to read together and to think about organisational issues, to talk with far-flung colleagues, to walk in the park and eat lovely stuff cooked by Dave and his team in the Café. With 127 staff on roll at The Reader, even if quite a few of us can’t be there, it feels part-party, part-team-meet, with added under-flavours of school assembly and family wedding.
Here’s Charlie down from Durham! And Sami up from Worcester! How nice to see you, Sue, as ever and no, I haven’t dyed my hair, I’m just going white… Lois, you were great in that South London video, Selina, how moving was the film of your group at Mersey Care. Coffee! Lasagne! Hello! You’re pregnant! Congratulations! Scones! Meet Luke, our new I.T. Apprentice – no don’t worry Ben’s not leaving…
Staff in the catch-up queue for lunch
And in the midst of all this, we’re going to discuss how we are going to make our future, and enjoy four sessions of reading King Lear together in small groups.
It took us years to realise that we needed to put shared reading sessions at the heart of Thinkday. We’re The Reader, so of course, we always read at them, but it was usually assembly-style, me at the front, reading a (probably) somewhat exhortatory poem or piece of writing –
Facing a perfect storm a couple of years ago, I read from Ulysses:
…my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
And when we first moved into Calderstones Mansion and were trying to put our values into words I remember reading from Herman Hesse, on Trees;
For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves.
And outside in the park, we can walk and talk there later, there’s an Alder with the most perfect form:
ut, It knows what shape it should be.
A couple of Thinkdays ago, when we moved to a two-day event, we decided to make one day a day of reading, and the second a day of thinking. But that was too exhausting: reading all day was hard for all of us. So, gradually, we found this lovely format: assembly, shared reading session, break, think session, lunch, think, cake break, shared reading. Times two. Now people were reporting feeling energised coming out of the reading session and into thinking. I remember Phil’s work on functional shift and brain activity – the reading sessions may be acting as mental High Intensity Impact Training – you couldn’t keep it up all day, but interspersing High Intensity with more moderate activity feels good.
Chris Chris and Penny still reading during break
We’re reading King Lear aloud and talking about it in minute detail and I’m in a room with a mixed bunch of newbies: interns, the new IT apprentice, senior managers. I always have a group that includes the new starters: it may be the only chance we get to read together. We’re talking about family as we read our way through the opening scenes, then we’re talking about work, about Kent, about what loyalty is, what it takes to do your job when things are going wrong, what happens when the boss goes mad, what kind of person you’d need to be to speak up against the mood of a meeting:
Kent: ……….be Kent unmannerly,
When Lear is mad. What wilt thou do, old man?
Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak,
When power to flattery bows? To plainness honour’s bound,
When majesty stoops to folly.
This is deep water and it is a fine way for me to meet newcomers, and for them to meet me – not as a rarely met Director – but as a woman in a room trying to understand a book, sometimes drowning and needing a helping hand.
Reading at work in this kind of mixed group has a peculiar kind of magic. I remember a sixth former at Monmouth Comprehensive, where we had done a summer holiday week of Read to Lead training for students, staff and governors, saying ‘when I see teachers after reading together like this… well, we’ll make eye contact and just think, I know you.’
Heads of HR! Give up your malteser-and-straw bridges, your team building by marbles and your whitewater rafting. Reading together takes you much deeper, much faster. When I bump into the new apprentice on the stairs later in the week, he says ‘Hi Jane,’ and I know his name and I remember him thinking about what kind of man Gloucester is. We make eye contact, and I think, I know you.