Adib ibn Jelal on Cadets & Apprentices.

If you’re reading this it’s either because you’ve asked me my views on cadets & apprentices, or more likely you’ve asked me to take you on as a cadet or apprentice. This is a private web page so to speak, so please don’t pass out the URL to all and sundry. It’s something I wrote to explain my opinion to one person, and decided to web the thoughts because it’s something I do get asked on the odd occasion.

These thoughts have been revised a few time, mostly when my status in the Society has changed, or some of the comments have become outdated. On the whole though, what you read here has been an ongoing belief since I was first given my White Scarf in 2002. The latest update happened just before my elevation as Lochac’s first fencing Laurel.

Ok firstly, if you’ve asked me to take you on as a cadet or apprentice, the short answer is no. The long answer is what follows.

There is no need to apologise for asking, and no you’re not the first person I’ve turned down. However, since this is probably a very personal request for you, I can’t just turn down the request without an explanation.

This answer is going to take a while to explain, so if you want to get a beer or a coffee or [shudder] tea before continuing, I won’t mind.

Right, you comfy?… let’s begin.

Straight up I’m going to admit I have very deep philosophical problems with the peer / student relationship as used within the SCA. I don’t think the system works and many times I think it is a “convenient” method for people to appear to be doing the right things. For the master, they get to look like a teacher, and for the student they get to be seen as learning. The whole thing though is very superficial. Maybe it’s a reflection of the ones I’ve seen, but I’ve yet to see one that really works in Rowany. I can’t in good conscience perpetuate a system that I feel doesn’t work.

I feel part of the problem is that people go into these relationships for the wrong reasons. For some it’s the “honour” of being so and so’s student, or having this many students. Reflected glory and honour does not make the person right or better. I’ve also seen it used as a cop out by students, squires in particular. The SCA grievance procedure says you talk to the person first, which is a pretty damn good idea anyway. A number of times I’ve heard or witnessed a response to this approach that ran along the lines of “you don’t like what I do / my behaviour etc – go take it up with my knight / laurel etc”. Well I can’t accept that sort of behaviour in an adult who is supposed to be responsible for their own actions. We make our own honour, and as Kafee said in “A Few Good Men” –

“You don’t need to wear a patch on your arm to have honour.”

The other problem with the system is that I feel the master is short changing the Kingdom and populace. One of the lines in the giving of an award is “continue to serve the Kingdom as you have done till now”. One person, or just a couple does not constitute the Kingdom or populous. By confining the teaching to a select few, I believe it actually inhibits the growth of the whole Kingdom. The knowledge of the master spreads slowly, and their attention is focussed on just what’s in front of them. This leads to the problem of people not getting the help they need, or the people doing the good stuff not being noticed. Sure, other people will argue with me and say they teach anyone who asks, but the reality is they will concentrate on their personal students and it doesn’t leave a lot of room for anyone else. Whilst I may work closely with a number of individuals, one of my overarching principles is that the students pass on what they know to everybody, and they get told that is my expectation!

Don Robin of Gilwell from Ansteorra describes how I feel when he said “A new fighter works to improve himself. A cadet works to improve himself, his friends and his Don. A Don works to improve the Kingdom.” As Greybeard likes to keep telling me, I’m the first Don of Lochac. It’s a mistake of history that I got given the very first white scarf, but it doesn’t stop me feeling the obligations and responsibilities of being the first. Don Aylwin made the comment to me after his elevation to Don that I was a tough act to follow and one of his exemplars in the SCA. The funny thing is I first met Aylwin when he was Prince of Lochac, and dealing with a real furball of a problem. (One of the great archery Lochac vs West/US debacles) I saw what he went through, and had a great deal of admiration for the calm rational approach he took. He copped a hell of a lot of flack, but he followed his convictions and sought the outcome that would best serve his populace. It surprised the hell out of him that I listed him as one of the people I thought was worthy of considering as a role model, and have thought of him as a role model. For better or for worse, I’m one of the people held up as THE example, and I really don’t feel worthy of that attention. (That and the Celestial Backlighting makes me an even better target!) I feel that as the first Don and fencing laurel, the whole of the Kingdom is my responsibility, and all the fencers are my cadets or apprentices. It’s my responsibility to keep an eye on the big picture, to survey the whole kingdom for progress, and to serve the whole of the Kingdom. If I took a cadet or apprentice, I feel that my ability to do that job would be compromised, and my duty to the cadet or apprentice would also be compromised by my attention to the big picture.

The other thing that really affects how I feel about this is that I got here by my own hard work, and the support of my friends and colleagues. Sure, I got a great grounding from Maestro Peter Linich, but I’m the one that put in the hard yards. I believe that anyone can do the same if they are willing to put in the hard yards. I also don’t want people to start thinking that you have to be a cadet or apprentice before you can become a Don or a Laurel. This is a very real and serious problem in my book. In some Kingdoms, it’s believed that you MUST be a cadet before you can get the white scarf, and it’s an accepted fact. The Dons themselves then fall into that same group thought, and over time they ONLY look at the cadets as possible candidates. It’s something I feel is a dangerous and counterproductive process. We have a similar problem here with the Chivalry. Many people feel you have to be a squire before the Chivalry council will notice you. I don’t want that to happen here for the White Scarf of Lochac. I want everyone to believe that it’s personal work and personal qualities that get you noticed, not who you know or what affiliations you may have.

Another fly in the ointment is that I’m a Guildmaster of Fence as well, and I became a Guildmaster before I became a Don. That has shaped my approach to how I teach. My fellow Guildmasters and I established a School of Defence in Rowany for the benefit and education of all the fencers in and around Rowany. Notice I still consider Angus, Caleb and Silfren to be my peer? It’s a clue to how I think and behave. Those 3 are just as valid as teachers as I am. Individually we have strengths and weaknesses, but collectively it’s the strongest teaching body in Lochac. Throw in Peter (whom unfortunately we don’t see much anymore), and you have a depth of skill and knowledge unmatched anywhere in Lochac. Everything I teach is available and open to everyone who comes to that school. There is nothing I could teach you as a cadet or apprentice that you wouldn’t learn in the School. The School would also be far more reliable in giving you the teaching you need than I would be.

To a lot of people and to outward appearances, I seem to be a very together, with it and organised person. The truth is something far more chaotic. My own life is exceptionally chaotic, and to be frank I don’t have the time to work closely with someone. I’ve been told I have an over-developed sense of responsibility, and that I take on far more than I can readily accomplish. I would feel strongly about making sure a cadet or apprentice got the time they needed, and with the way my life is currently running, it wouldn’t be fair to myself or to any cadet I took on.

OK, now here’s one of my biggest reasons for not taking on candidates. Way back when I first got into fencing, fencers were regarded as weak facsimiles of heavy combatants. It was a game you played because you couldn’t or wouldn’t swing a chunk of wood. I’ve done a lot of quiet work countering that stance, or opinion. I’ve done a hell of a lot of work to build the Guild, and to demonstrate that it has meaning and relevance to Lochac. The scarves given to Guild members have relevance and meaning. The recipients have earned the right to wear that scarf, and it’s a right given to them by their peers – recognition of time, effort and ability. Cadets and apprentices on the other hand… well that’s a personal agreement between 2 people. It has no public standard of recognition or rank, and I sure as hell detest the practice of wearing red scarves for cadets. I will fight to prevent a pseudo-rank forming in Lochac. I will also work to prevent the White Scarf being seen as a lesser equivalent to the White Belt, and I certainly don’t want people thinking the Dons are making a parody of the Chivalry.

Heavy fighters have a very blokey culture, and deep down it’s not something I admire or wish to emulate. I like to think I have a bit more culture than what came out of a beer bottle, or a tub of yoghurt. I grew up in an environment where the military life was all around me, as Dad was in the Air Force. There was an underlying culture that just annoyed the hell out of me. The trappings of rank, the culture where even the kids had prestige amongst other kids because daddy is an officer, the blatant servitude. I reject all that comes with that sort of culture, the macho bullshit, the questionable superiority. It’s not me and I can’t build a system that emulates that. I just wouldn’t be comfortable having cadets or apprentices because of the implied servitude. Hell I’m uncomfortable enough with the awed reverence I get from some people in the Society as it is. I’m not some fencing god, I’m just a guy that’s worked hard and knows some stuff.

I’m a facilitator, a teacher, a tutor, someone whom people can come to to get help and assistance. It just doesn’t feel right closing all that off to concentrate on just one or two people. Taking a cadet or apprentice also has some sort of fealty involved with it. I have a very real problem with fealty. Fealty is a contract, and a burden. I’m also a big believer in keeping my word, so to be in fealty with someone, or to have a “teaching contract” with a cadet or apprentice would be something that affects my whole life. You see ibn Jelal is really Richard Cullinan, and it’s just a name that Richard uses to keep the heralds happy, but he’s still just Richard Cullinan. I won’t be anyone’s servant, nor will I expect anyone to be my servant. Even when they offered me a peerage, I decided to not swear fealty because it goes against my personal beliefs. Let’s just say I don’t believe in fealty as used by the SCA and leave it at that.

So, lots of rambling later, I hope you can understand why I’m saying no. It’s not because of you, or anything personally associated with you. It’s all to do with my beliefs and philosophy of life. Having a cadet or apprentice is not compatible with my world view. This does not mean that I will not sponsor you to play a prize in the Guild. That I will do for anyone who asks, and whom I feel measures up to the standard. It also means that I’ll still work with you, help you and answer your questions, but I’d also do that for anyone who asked for help. Even if all you want to do is to discuss your research, and get an outside point of view I’ll help you with that as well. Oh and there is no need to feel embarrassed, it’s a perfectly fine question to have asked.

There’s scene in Hamlet where Pollonius is instructing Laertes on proper behaviour before he goes off to University. It’s in Act 1 Scene 3 to be exact and it has rung true with me ever since I first heard it when I studied Hamlet for the HSC over 25 years ago…

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

I have to be true to myself, and unfortunately for you that means I can’t take you on as a cadet or apprentice. I’m flattered by the request, but in this one thing I can’t help you.

If you want to have a chat about this, you know how to contact me! 🙂

Richard / Adib ibn Jelal