One of the privileges of being President of the Girls’ Schools Association is being invited to the annual conferences of the other UK Heads’ Associations, and last week I was a guest at the IAPS conference of Prep School Heads, which this year was held in Birmingham. It was a super conference with a stimulating theme of ‘Torch Bearers – Key Relationships in Shaping Society’, and it was great to be able to spend three days talking and thinking about the relationships we foster in our schools, which is one of the amazing strengths of the independent schools’ sector.
The speakers were inspirational, and one particularly inspirational – and moving – speaker was Mike Thexton, who told the story of how he was involved in the hijacking of Pan Am flight 073 in Karachi in 1986. He has written a book about the incident ‘ What happened to the hippy man? ‘ which refers to his rather unkempt appearance at the time (he was returning from a climbing expedition to honour his brother, who had died in the Himalayas, climbing without oxygen). In the early stages of the hijack, one passenger was shot, and Mike was chosen as the next man to die. He spent hours kneeling at the front of the plane, by the door, waiting to be shot, until he was eventually sent back to his seat. The ordeal did not end particularly well – 20 people were shot in a mass shooting by the hijackers – but Mike managed to escape, and live.
He spoke in a very matter-of-fact way about the incident, and had us captivated, holding our breath in shock and awe. It was a powerful presentation. Two points in his narration were particularly powerful, though. He told the story of the air hostess who, when told to collect in the passports of the passengers for the hijackers to select their victims, demonstrated incredible courage in ‘losing’ the passports of the white Americans who were on the flight – judging, rightly, that they would otherwise be the first to die. It struck home – I remembered the story of bravery and resilience in another hijacking experienced b a dear friend of mine, which you can read about on her website.
He also told his own story – of how, at the front of the plane, a bullet away from death, he not only said goodbye in his head to all his family and those dear to him, but he decided that he did not want to die angry, and that he would forgive the hijackers. He did, and he found an amazing peace and calm.
The strength that comes from going beyond the everyday, from rising above concerns with the self, and taking a bold, brave leap into concern for others, even in the face of tremendous adversity, is phenomenal. Terror may be an extraordinarily disempowering, imprisoning force – but we break free when we decide, consciously, that we are greater than the bodies in which we inhabit our lives – we are part of this amazing body of humanity.
To be courageous and to forgive – two choices which we can all make.