Executive Perspective

Bagpipes and a Spot of Grace

by Paul D. Houston

On a recent trip to Scotland I was able to attend the Royal Military Tattoo. No, this is not a multicolored body engraving of a picture of Queen Elizabeth that says “Hail to the Queen.”

The Royal Tattoo is an incredible evening, blending military maneuvers with a music and light show and is performed in front of the castle in Edinburgh. For most visitors the highlight comes when hundreds of bagpipers launch into “Amazing Grace.” The haunting music is so eerily beautiful it could raise the hair on Mr. Clean. As you listen to that haunting music and think of the words, you are moved to the depths of your soul.

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.” The hymn is a song about sin and redemption, despair and hope. It has moved people since it was written by John Newton, who had been a slave trader but who saw the error of his ways. The song is a form of amends to those ways. It is an acknowledgement that while you can be lost, you also can find your way back, through grace.

Grace Sustained
The roots of the song are clearly spiritual and religious. It is about God’s gift of grace to humanity that frees us from past sins. But there are other elements of grace we must consider. Grace is something that is elegant and that shows a generosity of spirit. Once, when President Kennedy was asked what quality he admired in others, he quoted Ernest Hemingway’s assessment of bullfighters — grace under pressure. Leaders, who live under pressure, must find their own way to grace and then impart that grace to others.

The Tattoo is a kaleidoscope of color and sound and can’t be fully described in words. You have to be there to fully get it. But it is a demonstration of grace itself. Performers and audience members come from all over the world. They set aside their differences and build off their own cultures to create a panoply of movement and sound that is like no other.

A fife and drum corps from Massachusetts dressed in Revolutionary War regalia performed, then a full marching band and a drill team of young Chinese women from Taipei executed amazing precision so that the outcome was closer to dance than military maneuvers. Next a military band from Russia dressed in drab green military uniforms, goose-stepping across the castle floor only to break into modern rock music accompanied by their own version of hip hop dancing. Meanwhile, images are being projected onto the wall of the castle, lights and colors are constantly changing, and fireworks are being set off into the night sky.

But first and last is the corps of Scottish military drum and bagpipe bands, which blends its ancient music into heart-rending moments for the audience. I admit bagpipe music is an acquired taste, but you haven’t really heard it until you hear it bouncing off the walls of an ancient castle. Its plaintive sounds will break your heart.

The Full Picture
My trip to Scotland was a personal vacation — no visits to schools, no discussions with policy leaders and no worries about the implications for American education. Yet throughout the trip I found lessons for us.

Scotland is a rugged land. Its mountains are stark and foreboding. Its towns are built of the grey stone that covers the land. Yet the mountains are clothed in shades of green and the deep purple of heather. Their rugged vastness creates a context for the lone crane or mountain deer that you sometimes spot along the way. It highlights what might otherwise be overlooked. And the towns are draped in a profusion of flower boxes and planted gardens set against the gray stone walls of the houses. The heather and the planted gardens are even more spectacular because they are set against the grayness of their surroundings. That plainness frames the picture.

We have to notice both figure and ground to get the full picture. Often in our work we are so intent on the details, we fail to see the bigger picture. Schools have been so busy complying with federal mandates they have forgotten to ask why those mandates exist and whether those in Washington are best equipped to direct the work. They have allowed themselves to be bullied into doing things that are not good for kids or teachers because they are fearful of not meeting the requirements. The result is we have replaced our flowers with shades of gray.

This takes me to another lesson from Scotland. On our trip, the tour visited the Battlefield of Culloden where in 1745 the forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie were defeated by the British. I found two lessons in those stark fields. The fellow that the prince sent out to survey the field came back with the wrong conclusions. He suggested it was a great place for a battle. It was — for the British. It was wide and flat and played into the British strengths. Up to that time the Scots had won every battle by using the mountainous terrain that they knew so well to their advantage. Flat isn’t familiar to a Scotsman. This fellow was also the guy who ordered the wrong-sized cannon balls for the battle. They wouldn’t fit the cannons the Scots had. It’s hard to win a battle with the wrong cannons and no balls.

They entered that battlefield undefeated, but they were routed. Their battles seemed to be more about Bonnie Prince Charlie’s ambitions than about their own needs. They didn’t really know what they were fighting for. They were undefeated yet demoralized and they were routed.

As we fight our own battles, they need to be ones that we understand and are committed to. We need to understand the context, and we need to do so in a way that brings a spot of grace to those around us.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.