All shall be well… My final assembly

I leave John Hampden Grammar School today after seven incredible years. Here’s the text of my final assembly:

As this is my last chance to ever speak to you I thought I’d pose you a difficult question. Are you the same person who walked into this hall for the first assembly of the year… way back in September? This might seem like a stupid question but as you will know I quite like questions. In fact I much prefer questions to answers. So. Are you the same person?

Well, let me give you some help. I’m a huge admirer of the poetry of TS Eliot. Not his stuff about cats but his more complex work. Ask your English teachers about The Wasteland. In one of his most famous poems Eliot offers up one of my favourite verses in the whole of English literature (and I quote)

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

What does Eliot mean? What I think he means is that life is something to be explored. Those of you who watch X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent will be familiar with this idea. Life is all about the journey. But he is also saying something else. Something more profound. That the end of our exploring is coming back to where we started and knowing it for the first time. Things change but nothing changes.

Ok. We need a bit more help to answer our question. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus, born in the 6th century BC, is famous for saying that – you cannot step into the same river twice. What? Of course you can. I’ve been here for seven years and every year Mr Reed has taken year 10 down to the Rye to stand in it and measure things. So what does Mr Reed have to do with Heraclitus? Well, The river might look the same and be called the same bit it isn’t the same – it’s constantly moving, constantly flowing to the sea.  And you are constantly changing too. Mr Reed may tell you to stand in the river and then get out and stand in it again. But you won’t be the same. You will have changed. You’ll be a few seconds older with slightly wetter feet. Things change but nothing changes.

Look I don’t think we are getting anywhere so I’m going to go completely introspective. Here’s me. Wasn’t I cute? OMG there I am wearing a kilt. I had curtains and a dodgy haircut. How do I relate to these images from my past. Well I look at myself and don’t recognise myself. Two kids can age you. Things change but nothing changes. Possibly the greatest writer in modern English says something about this:

“…What can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.”  (George Orwell)

So let me pose the question one final time. Are you the same person you were when you came into the Hall back in September? You now know about Heraclitus. Maybe you didn’t know that before. Maybe you’ve heard of TS Eliot for the first time. Maybe you did well in your end of year exams. Maybe you didn’t. Maybe you’ve had your imagination and curiosity fired in a particular subject. Maybe you’ve found something really difficult or irrelevant. BUT Are you the same person who started the year? What’s changed? Are you proud of the changes you’ve made this year? Are you disappointed? Have things changed for the better or have some things changed for the worse?

The verse this assembly is framed around is taken from a poem called Little Gidding. It completes Eliot’s series of poems called The Four Quartets. He ends the poem by quoting Julian of Norwich a 14th century English mystic and saint and (here’s a QI fact for you) the author of the first book in the English language known to have been written by a woman.

She famously penned (and Eliot quotes) one of the most optimistic aphorisms in the English language “…All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

So I’m moving on after seven incredible years. You are moving on to further adventures too. Things change but nothing changes. BUT maybe like Julian of Norwich implies – hopefully things turn out well in the end.
Thank you and goodbye.

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