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The life cycle of inspiration

When we’re born, there’s no predestined path for our lives. We have good luck and bad luck. We make good choices and bad choices. And whether we’re aware of it or not, we have opportunities that we may or may not take. We set off on paths without knowing where they’ll lead, but something — or someone — sets us off, lights the blue touchpaper of a vague sense of destiny, and off we go, accelerating into the uncertain future.


When I think about what made me, as a surly yet impressionable teenager, take up mountaineering, a schoolteacher is always there. His name was Geoff Mason. Unlike most teachers of the time, he was fun to be around. He seemed such a cool dude, a pin-up of the ’seventies, with blond hair reaching well below his shoulders, wayward strands straying across his sky-blue suit, the scuffed toes of his desert boots peeping from beneath his bell-bottom trousers. He taught geography, and he ran the school’s adventure club.


I was a timid kid and being small for my age I got knocked around a bit. The sports we had to play — soccer, rugby, hockey — were bruising and humiliating. I didn’t mind the non-contact sports so much, but even they failed to reveal a talent for anything.


One day, after a geography lesson, Geoff Mason mentioned he was taking the adventure club on a 25-mile hike across Dartmoor and encouraged me to come. Flattered by the cool dude’s interest in me, I agreed, and that Saturday a group of us walked the length of Dartmoor, from Okehampton camp to Ivybridge. At the end of it I was blistered and bloodied and utterly knackered, but despite the pain — or perhaps because of it — I felt better than I’d ever felt before.


That was nearly fifty years ago yet I remember it vividly. By taking me on that hike, a teacher lit the blue touchpaper that would propel me into the future, and the life I’ve been fortunate to live and lucky to survive. I’d like to thank Geoff Mason for the chance he gave me, but I’ve no idea where he is. If he’s still alive he’ll be knocking on a bit now. A Google search shows nothing.


Yesterday I gave a talk to fifty teachers from a low socio-economic area who, I was told, ‘give everything, every day for the students’. The commitment of those teachers to their students was palpable. It filled the room with their shared purpose. They were a beautiful thing comprised of many individuals, like a murmuration of starlings, or a shoal of sardines. They didn’t seem to need any more inspiration, yet that was my brief.


I told them about Geoff Mason, the teacher who lit my blue touchpaper and set me on a life-long journey up the world’s highest mountains. Geoff would have had no expectations of any kind of result. He did it because he cared about me, just as the teachers I met yesterday care about the children they teach.


Perhaps one day I’ll have a chance to thank Geoff for what he did. He inspired me. It seems things have come a full circle, from receiving inspiration from a teacher to giving inspiration back to teachers. And so it goes on, inspiration going round and round, picking us up, propelling us forward to gather our own stories, which in turn we can use to inspire others. In the meantime, in the absence of Geoff Mason, I can thank today’s teachers who give everything, every day, to the children in their care. Who knows where their love will lead?

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