I keep a copy of Shakespeare’s Henry V by my desk and have since I became a school administrator. It could seem grandiose, I suppose, the tabby cat imagining himself a lion, but there is wisdom in that iambic pentameter and I’m willing to acknowledge my inner English teacher and take the kidding.
Looking to Shakespeare’s account of England’s favorite monarch for inspiration, however, puts me in mind to be better than I am. I may be domesticated, but hear my roar.
Henry V provides a slew of lessons and lines that resonate with me, and while it doesn’t have anything to do with leadership, I can’t help but whisper to myself every time I walk into a theater: “O for a muse of fire…”
But the trappings of a high school principal are khakis and embroidered polo shirts, not balm and scepter or crown imperial, and as much as I find encouragement in the youthful king, perhaps it would be as wise for me to consider his younger self, Prince Hal, that “nimble footed madcap Prince of Wales” whose adventures and indiscretions offer just as many lessons about leadership, learning, and growing up.
The two part prequel to Henry V introduces Prince Hal as a reckless youth hellbent on fun and keeping company with a cast of characters equally bawdy and base. This is perfect for great literature, but not the sort you’d want near your own son or daughter.
Pistol, Bardolf, and especially Falstaff are the grown up versions of the scruffy and scandalous influences who give principals gray hair and assistant principals stories to tell each other. That Hal, the soon to be golden king, spends time in such company justifiably unnerves and disappoints his father, the king, who compares his “Harry” to a nobleman’s own well behaved son, Percy.
In envy that my Lord Northumberland
Should be the father to so blest a son,
A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue;
Amongst a grove, the very straightest plant;
Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride:
Whilst I, by looking on the praise of him,
See riot and dishonour stain the brow
Of my young Harry. O that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.”
What parent, or caring educator, wouldn’t be tempted to think the same?
As a principal it’s important for me to embrace the belief that each of of our young Harrys might transcend youthful indiscretion and become a regal Henry.
Audiences of Henry IV part one and two and Henry V see just that transcendance. After learning what it is to live as a “common man,” and a rascal at that, Hal is able to put aside his childish ways, don the mantle of responsibility, and incorporate an understanding of his subjects into his reign as king.
In Shakespeare is a wisdom that might apply to the principal’s office.
True, administrators don’t wear crowns, teachers don’t shoot crossbows, and working with kids is not conquering France (though it sometimes feels as challenging), but allowing ourselves the patience and optimism that should be inspired by the transformation of Shakespeare’s king has the chance to make us more empathetic educators.
Seeing in our young students, particularly the shaggy ones, whose “unsavoury similes” alarm us and whose behavior is a mass of “skimble-skamble stuff” the possibility of growth and change can go a long way toward creating a school culture that honors the potential of everyone.
Who our students will be as adults is as hidden from us as the impetuous Hal’s future was from his father. As the young prince caroused and lived irresponsibility, laughing at bawdy songs he listened, learned, and developed a perspective that made him a better king.
I wish for all my students the wisdom that comes from a full life, the strength to know themselves well enough to be true to who they are, not the temptingly Falstaffian pleasures of the crowd, and intrepid spirit that might lead another to describe them as Ancient Pistol did King Henry: “a bawcock and a heart of gold.”