Born Yesterday by Philip Larkin
(For Sally Amis)
I have wished you something
None of the others would:
Not the usual stuff
About being beautiful,
Or running off a spring
Of innocence and love —
They will all wish you that,
And should it prove possible,
Well, you’re a lucky girl.
But if it shouldn’t, then
May you be ordinary;
Have, like other women,
An average of talents:
Not ugly, not good-looking,
To pull you off your balance,
That, unworkable itself,
Stops all the rest from working.
In fact, may you be dull —
If that is what a skilled,
Catching of happiness is called.
I HAVE a bit of a love hate relationship with the poet Philip Larkin - partly because I was made to study his poems at school, partly because many of his poems are about a search for happiness I am not quite sure he himself found in his life as a librarian in Hull. And yet there is something that calls me back to his poems which is partly their resonance with the everyday, their humdrum bitterness, but also, I confess, partly a nostalgia for my own school days and the English lessons I had.
School has a deep and lasting impact on all of us whether we like it or not (and for some us we end up working in them) and this morning we are here because it is the your last ever assembly which puts me under a little pressure to make it as memorable as I can.
Perhaps take a moment to look round at each other - there 150 or so of you. Perhaps look at the person next to you. As you head out into the wider world, reflect on the sum total of the creative energy in this room, reflect on how many countless acts of goodness you will bring to the world, reflect on how many children you might bring into this world (maybe not with the person you are looking at), just think on how much carbon you are going to throw into the atmosphere (hopefully less than my generation), how many mistakes and errors, how much hurt you might bring, how much joy you might bring - well that’s what it is like to be human and you are looking at another human. It's almost as unnerving as looking at yourself in the mirror and realising who is staring back at you. Hopefully the good will outweigh the bad and your creative talent, energy and positivity will make the world just that bit better.
But one thing you will all have are the experiences and friendships you have forged here. School will be the one thing that unites you all as you go your separate, and what I hope will be highly successful, ways. It’s the one thing which can’t be taken away from you and it can’t even be expunged from your record. You have this place for life - whether you like it or not. You leave here Old Riponians. Hopefully that will mean a huge amount to you - the friendships you've made, the teachers in all their idiosyncrasies, you've met. With these experiences I hope sincerely you will look back on your school days with great fondness and that you'll want to come back.
This morning’s assembly partly allows me to indulge my love for a band who I grew up with in the 1980s - at roughly the same age as you - The Smiths. The song you heard today - The Headmaster Ritual - starts with the typically sublime lilting guitar of Jonny Marr before Morrissey, with characteristically acerbic and mordantly funny lyrics, sings of his educational experience – ‘of spineless ghouls working in Manchester schools’ with ‘demented minds and cemented minds’. They don’t write lyrics like that anymore.
Well, hopefully your education has been at least broadly liberating, humane and you leave here without a mind that is cemented nor have you faced teachers you might class as demented. Yes, if you come back in ten years, you will probably find this old hall looking exactly the same, if we are still here (probably not) I will still be wearing the same old suit, Mr Fell will be driving a blue Citroen and Mrs Griffiths will still be looking out of her office window in sheer wonder at the performance unfolding.
We know it has been a difficult two years for you. Disrupted and circumscribed by lockdowns, remote learning, one-way systems, face masks and of course cancelled exams. We continue to live in a post-Covid world which still to me feels different to a pre-Covid world. Inevitably there will be a feeling that part of your sixth form life has been taken away from you. Robbed I guess might be a word to us. But we all feel that, and it was no better and possibly worse for last year’s leavers too. I'm afraid that's life - there are always times in our life when we feel things are being taken from us unfairly, illegally, unjustly. We just have to take the rough with the smooth. At least you leave here with university course and life returning as near possible to normality and you won’t be holed up in a halls of residence joining lectures on Teams.
So, let's also remember, like the yin and the yang, the good and the bad (and even the ugly for good measure), life is a great giver and that there's always a flip side to everything, where we can find happiness and joy and we can appreciate the good things in life – friendship, family, the beauty around us. Yes, exam results are important I won’t pretend otherwise, but they are only a small part of a much larger picture and as years progress they become increasingly less significant. What perseveres is strength of character, humour, connectedness.
So, I will leave you with a few words of humble advice which I always pass on to leavers. Do I always follow my own advice - possibly, possibly not, but hopefully we can all strive towards approaching perfection even though we also know it doesn’t exist:
Farewell upper sixth. You have been a tremendous year in all your array of abilities and talents, interests and personalities. Be happy in your skin, be happy in your soul and realise that the greatest gift is to make others happy as they will make you happy in return.
Let's look to the future and let's look to mid-August when you will, we sincerely hope, receive a fantastic set of grades - the grades that you deserve if you've done your best, and your best is all we can ask for.
And finally stay in touch, come back on Old Riponian days and if you do make a small fortune please consider donating something to school to sort out this old building, extend the common room in the sixth form centre, or anything really.
Best of luck and before I go - a big thank you to Mr Fell and all the sixth form team and tutors for looking after you these last two years.