A tribute to my friend, colleague and Headteacher of Hendon School, who died on Sunday
There are cards and flowers and a very small glass angel outside Hendon School today. Amongst them, there’s a message from a student, who has kindly given me his permission to share it. It was a card he meant to give Kevin before the end of term. It reads as follows:
Dear Mr McKellar (Kevin),
I wanted to take a moment to formally thank you for everything you have done for me throughout my time at Hendon. It is rare to find a Head Teacher that shows such enthusiasm to help his students and change people’s lives. I could not have made it to where I am without your help, you have encouraged me in ways you cannot imagine by supporting, believing and giving me a chance to follow my dreams. Thus, because of this, I cannot wait to move onto the next stage of my life and university.
Kevyn (with a ‘y’)
P.S. I look forward to keeping in touch.
Kevyn has added the following note on 26 August:
The card I was not able to give to you. Thank you Sir. Rest in peace.
Kevin loathed social media. He was deeply mistrustful of its capacity to wound and offend in ways that went against the ‘spirit of transparency’ of which he spoke so often. He and I argued about this frequently. In true Kevin spirit, he didn’t give an inch. I think even he would be blown away by the tidal wave of grief and affection and respect that is out there this week. I think I may even have enough evidence to win the argument. I just wish it wasn’t too late.
If there is one message which overlies all of the rest, not just in the media, but in the cards, the phone calls, the conversations and helpless shrugs, it’s that Kevin McKellar Changed Lives. Not all of us agreed with all of his methods all of the time, but he had a set of core values which did what every teacher I know most deeply aspires to: Kevin Make a Difference.
In Kevin’s school, every adult and child was expected to give their everything to trying to be better. This was never, as far as I remember, explicitly demanded, but it was modelled by him tirelessly, every second of every day in his role as Headteacher of Hendon School. He gave every ounce of his being to pushing us each further than we might have imagined we could go. He led with tireless, sometimes infuriating, flamboyance.
People were everything to Kevin. He knew our family members by name, he knew our pets, our weaknesses, our fears and our dreams. He would dance in and out of classrooms and offices speaking appalling Japanese, German, or a mixture of the two, singing loudly, demonstrating his latest dance move or proffering little gifts. A Hello Kitty bag he’d seen that he knew my daughter would love (and I would hate), a hand-drawn zebra (because ‘zebras never get stressed’), an inspirational book about a world-changing figure, an outrageous anecdote about his latest DIY disaster (I’ll never forget the story of him falling through the roof of the greenhouse). He knew our favourite colours, our deeply-held beliefs, our idiosyncrasies. His exuberance was infectious, exhausting, and – we believed – without end.
When I went to this school this morning, after two months away, it was with fresh eyes that I saw the pink walls and angels, the wrought-iron hearts, and the bright blue pots we painted together with our families, the first weekend after we started at Hendon.
There’s a fountain in the middle of the courtyard. A carved angel outside his office. A mural of inspirational quotes (hand-painted by Kevin, with help from staff and students) outside the library. Even the pipes are painted pink. There’s colour everywhere. Colour which reflects the heart, the soul, and the love that was at the heart of the enterprise we all gave ourselves to every day at work. Of trying to be better.
My decision to leave Hendon in May was a difficult one. That story is for another time. But I knew that I’d be taking with me the values I had grown, under Kevin’s leadership, to stand for. I’d like to highlight three of them.
Kevin’s death is a reminder, above all, that we are each fallible and fragile. Kevin used to constantly remind me to ‘support upwards’ as well as in every other direction. Kevin could spot at 50 paces if you were having a bad day. Last year, the day after a friend passed away, he vehemently insisted I fly to the funeral in Ireland, which remains one of the best decisions I could have made. He sought out the lonely, the vulnerable, the slightly lost, and he made it his mission to help them feel better. I know I’m one of hundreds wishing we could have made it better for him.
Kevin didn’t just tolerate diversity. He celebrated it. He saw magic and potential in each adult and child he worked with and fiercely devoted himself to drawing it out. He never demanded conformity, as long as we were true to the values of the school, at the heart of which was always, without hesitation, the good of the students. Our staff and kids are inclusion embodied – a crazy mix of shapes and sizes and faiths and persuasions and passions and talents.
An endless sense of possibility
For Kevin, anything was possible. ‘Go for it!’ was his response to any idea or inspiration – ‘then come back and show me IMPACT!’ The school was haven to guinea pigs, dogs, small children and, for a memorable summer, an enormous circus tent. He believed we all need constant challenge and inspiration, and had a way of picking up on restlessness and creating new and exciting opportunities and cajoling and pestering and spurring us on to success.
There is a bitter irony at the heart of this sentiment, of course, and it’s this that so many of us are grappling with, through waves of sadness, a sense of unreality, helplessness and the strange quietness that seems to assert itself now. The man who taught us anything was possible is no longer here, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Or maybe there’s a small something. Kevin has died, but the values he represented so passionately are timeless. I remember how deeply proud he was of our triumphs. He used to write to our parents to tell them how proud he was. Wouldn’t he be proud of us if we tapped into the depths of our resilience, put on our bravest smiles, looked out for each other, and got back to the business of preparing our young people for the exciting, uncertain world of adulthood. And what a group of young people they are.
As a former colleague, mentee and friend of Kevin, I’ll pledge this to him: I won’t be complacent or defeatist. I’ll stand up for my moral values with conviction. I won’t be afraid to be different or fallible or admit when I’m wrong. I’ll always ask how I, and those around me, can be even better. I’ll continue to celebrate diversity and difference and eccentricity. I’ll put people first and continue to work to fulfil the potential you saw in me. And I’ll continue to try to make you proud.