Je Suis Charlie
‘O let me see our land retain her soul,
Her pride, her freedom; and not freedom’s shade.’
[To Hope, Keats]
A profound moment at 8:40am on a grey Monday morning in January no doubt echoed in schools across the country today.
In assembly at St Albans High School more than 600 girls held their pens in the air before writing their response to one word, Freedom. In two minutes they silently exercised their freedom of expression in defiant celebration of the core values of our liberal society.
Original ideas, doodles, elaborate drawings, quotations – whatever. All life was there. From the wonderful origami plane – with ‘Freedom’ written on its wings; to the winsome creativity of a chained hand stretching through bars to release a bird, or the profundity of a simple cross with the words: “One with himself, I cannot die, My perfect soul is counted free.” beneath it. From the sketchy: mountains, butterflies, birds – a chicken! – to the erudite: the Keats quotation above, some J S Mill, scrap after scrap of clean white paper spoke of freedom and our young women’s commitment to it.
Right now our students have been offered an opportunity: to stand up for the right to use their pen – or, let’s face it, their texting/tweeting/snapchatting ‘pens’ to say with millions of others, ‘#jesuischarlie’ These girls are the leaders, the voices, the writers of the future, tasked with the privilege of upholding the values of our society – of freedom and equality before the law.
Our students are so lucky. They have the means and power to express themselves, just as they did in St Albans today –with maverick wit, with profound conviction and with seriousness and respect. And as they considered the principles laid down by John Stuart Mill and also by Voltaire, (‘I detest what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it’) as so many have found ourselves doing this week, I hope that they felt burningly aware of the power that their pens hold and of the responsibility that comes with this privilege.
We ARE all Charlie – we must ‘defend to the death’ our right to use our pens but we must also determine all our lives to use them for good purpose.
Jenny Brown, Headmistress, St Albans High School for Girls