Stepping into a bright future

As our upper sixth students leave RGS to step into their bright futures, headmaster Jonathan Webb offers a few words of advice

"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." Read the rest of his address below

"Another brilliant school officer team depart for new adventures. Thank you for all your hard work!" says headmaster Mr Webb

Born Yesterday by Philip Larkin

(For Sally Amis)

Tightly-folded bud,
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,
Nothing uncustomary
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,
Vigilant, flexible,
Unemphasised, enthralled
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:

  • We all make mistakes- be a little more forgiving and less judgemental, but own up to your mistakes and seek to act on them. Accepting you have cocked up and being prepared to say sorry is one of the most important qualities - eat humble pie, fess up, take the wrap, embrace your vulnerability - you will only take people with you as a result.
  • Have an empathy for those around you. Try to understand how they feel and think, even if how they think and feel does not accord with your own views. You don’t have to agree but we also seek understanding.
  • Obey the law, pay your taxes and don’t take illegal substances and/or drive over the speed limit. Please, please I don’t want to have to visit you in prison. And make sure you vote - how ever insignificant you feel your point of view is, if you don’t vote you end up with the politicians you deserve. In the long run democracies cannot survive the indifference of their voters - a democratic deficit leads to dictatorship, oppression and war - there are ample examples of this in history and in the present day.
  • Remember life is a great leveller. And so, I go back to Larkin. The poem you heard speaks volumes about life and meaning and purpose. While most people seem to think that beauty, money, fame, or intelligence is what makes a person worthwhile, Larkin points out the fallacy of this belief. He does this in a simple, yet profound way. He wishes the new born child an average of talent because that is what we all are - average. We have strengths and weaknesses in equal measure. Some of us are more beautiful than others - there may even be somebody in this room better looking than you!, some of us have more skill in sport, some of us are simply more gifted in mathematics, some of us have simply been dealt a genetic card which favours one gift over another. But the sum of our abilities hits an average. And at its best the greatest skill is a knowledge of the vulnerabilities of life and an acceptance of that. Don’t chase perfection - it doesn’t exist and you will always be unhappy in its pursuit. If school can at least start you off on that realisation about life it will have served its purpose well.

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.