Monarch butterfly emerging from its cocoon.
Butterflies are beautiful. Their often-striking colours and patterns, the result of years of evolution, make them captivating. Their delicate wings have a beautiful fragility that makes them look as though they would break under the slightest gust of wind, yet can transport the butterfly for miles – for Monarch butterflies, those wings carry them from Canada across 2,500 miles to central Mexico.
The thing that I really want to focus on is how butterflies get to become butterflies, as they go though one of the most incredible metamorphoses to get there.
Butterflies begin their lives as a fertilised egg which develops into a larvae. This tiny grub, otherwise known as a caterpillar, has one job: to eat. And it will eat a lot, almost constantly in fact: the story of the very hungry caterpillar which eats and eats is rooted in fact! As it eats, a caterpillar grows, so much so that it grows too big for its skin, which it has to shed; doing this four times.
It is on the fifth occasion when the caterpillar grows too large for its skin when I consider that the magic happens. Instead of shedding its skin, the caterpillar develops into a pupae or chrysalis, or in the case of moths, spins itself a silk cocoon. Depending on the species, it may stay inside this casing for weeks, months or even years, and here something particularly gruesome happens. The caterpillar digests itself, releasing enzymes that break down all of its body cells, except for some very important cells that will control the development of the butterfly. If you were to break open a chrysalis at the right time during pupation, all of the cell juice that once was the caterpillar would just come oozing out. This ooze is incredibly important, as it is a protein-rich soup that remaining cells use to form all of the body parts of the adult butterfly. Let’s just consider what we are talking about here: a caterpillar with perhaps 16 legs and a soft fleshy body essentially goes into a changing room, digests its entire body into liquid, and two weeks later emerges having built itself six jointed legs, two pairs of scaled wings, antennae and an exoskeleton. It is truly an amazing transformation.
At school, whilst you might not go through quite the same level of physical transformation, there is a transformation all the same. As you progress through the year groups you grow and develop in confidence, making key decisions on which subjects you will study, and what you will go onto in the future. You develop in skills and confidence so that by the time you reach the end of Year 13 you might emerge as butterflies; beautiful, well adapted to the environment you will find yourself in, and with wings capable of carrying you on your future journey.
But this process is not an easy one, and it needs considerable effort on your part. This is true also of the butterfly. When the butterfly has fully formed within the pupa, it has to break out.
There is an old fable of a man who found a cocoon of a butterfly, that he brought home to watch hatch.
One day a small opening appeared in the cocoon. The man sat and watched for several hours as the butterfly struggled to force its body through that little hole. Then the butterfly seemed to stop making progress, looking as if it could go no further. So the man decided to help the butterfly in its struggle, taking a pair of scissors he snipped off the remaining bit of the cocoon... and the butterfly emerged easily.
As the butterfly emerged, the man was surprised. It had a swollen body and small, shrivelled wings. He continued to watch, expecting that, at any moment, the wings would dry out, enlarge and expand to support the body which would shrink to a normal size, as he had seen other butterflies do.
But this did not happen!
In fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shrivelled wings. It never was able to fly.
What the man, in his kindness and haste, did not understand was that the restricting cocoon and the struggle out of it were required for the butterfly to be able to fly. The butterfly must push its way through the tiny opening to force the fluid from its body and into its wings. Only by struggling through the opening, can the butterfly's wings be ready for flight once it emerges from the cocoon.
Similarly at school, whether in the classroom or wider school life, there will be things that you will find a challenge. There might be a time when want someone to solve the challenges for you, or remove them from your path. However, it is how we deal with adversity, how we persevere through challenges and face things that are difficult, that enables us to develop our skills and knowledge the most. There are many structures in place in school to support you with the challenges you will face, and your teachers and house staff are here to help and guide you to do your best, but they cannot do the hard work for you, nor should they or your parents remove the things that you find difficult. Like the butterfly, sometimes a challenge is exactly what we need: if we went through life without facing any difficulties, we would never push ourselves, and we would never see what we are truly capable of: what we can become.
So the next time you come across a real challenge, spare a thought for the butterfly. Approach your challenges with the realisation that facing them makes you stronger, more skilled and better equipped to face the wider world, and consider how the journey you are taking as you go through school can transform you into a confident, capable and beautiful individual who is ready to fly.