The Important Moment

In the G.W. Annenberg on Monday morning, students and staff were gripped by a story from Mr Wilson, an OW who returned to Wellington this year to teach Design, Engineering & Technology. Recounting an experience from his time in the Army, Mr Wilson transported us to a dawn patrol, conjuring up the scene in vivid detail: a green zone on the edge of a deep river, a burst of machine-gun fire, a field of improvised explosive devices, casualties, lost limbs, disaster, failure. Thankfully, what Mr Wilson was describing was a simulation exercise. His rifle platoon was on a training exercise in Norfolk, and what Mr Wilson went on to illustrate brilliantly was that, often, the full value of an experience is not revealed until much later.

In fact, it was five months later, that Mr Wilson and his fellow Riflemen found themselves preparing for an operation through an area of Helmand Province known as Yakhchal. The scene was vaguely familiar: another green zone, only this time on the edge of a desert, IEDs, gunfire. In fact, as Mr Wilson said, the scene ‘unfolding’ in front of them was no different from what they had encountered in that final training exercise in Norfolk.  This time, they knew exactly what to do. The frustration and anger felt by some of his fellow Riflemen during the ‘dummy’ exercise, who felt they had been set up to fail, was replaced by acceptance and understanding. This time, there were no major casualties. Lives were saved.

There is a very important message here, one that resonates in so many areas of life. Quite often, we fail to appreciate the significance of something, simply because its value is not immediately apparent. During his assembly, Mr Wilson asked, “What was the important moment of the operation in Yakhchal?” The answer was obvious: the important moment had occurred five months earlier, in a green zone in Norfolk. The lesson is simple: we have to commit in the present, and somehow trust that our efforts will count in the future.

For me, this idea is poignantly illustrated in the story of Captain Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole. Scott and his five companions reached the South Pole on 17th January 1912 but, tragically, all five died of exhaustion in 1913, as they made their way back to base camp. They were just 11 miles from a food depot. If they had reached that depot, they would perhaps have survived. There has been much speculation over the years about this doomed expedition; Scott’s leadership has often been the subject of scrutiny. What I always come back to, however, is a simple matter of distance and time. By my calculations, if Scott and his team had walked just an extra 90 steps a day, if they had walked for just one extra minute a day, that would have carried them the extra 11 miles. They would have made it to that food depot. Of course, only with the benefit of hindsight can we appreciate the significance of those extra steps, only in retrospect can we judge the value of those extra minutes but, for me, this part of Scott’s story is important because it reminds us of the relationship between present effort and future success.

How many times have I seen students pack up their books a few minutes before the end of a lesson, potentially missing the last opportunities to learn? Over the last few weeks, how many teachers will have cautioned exam classes to make the most of the remaining lessons before study leave, reminding them that topics covered now may well appear on an exam paper in a couple of months? And when that topic appears on an exam paper, will the students ask themselves, “What was the important moment?” The important moment will not be the 30 minutes they take to answer the question; the important moment may well have been two months earlier, in a classroom, in the dying minutes of a lesson.

The magnificent Under 15 Rugby team presented another example in the National Finals at Twickenham on Thursday. There were many outstanding moments in this brilliant game, but what was the important moment that led to Wellington being crowned National Champions?

The important moment is likely to be found somewhere amidst the extra miles they ran in training, the extra steps they took in practice, or the extra minutes they spent discussing their game-plan, the total value of which was not revealed until the final whistle blew.

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