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Head's Address at Prize Giving, 1st July 2021

Well done for concentrating so well this afternoon.  With everything that has been going on in the last couple of weeks, not to mention all the challenges of the last fifteen months, I am not surprised that everyone feels the need for a break – even if we may not be able to go exactly where we would want to go for our holidays this year. 

I’m sorry that parents have been unable to join us today, but we will do our best to get some pictures and video to you, even though it obviously won’t be the same as being here in person.  However, the absence of adults gives us the chance to have the whole school together at the same time, which is a very rare event at Radnor House, and a genuine pleasure today. 

A long time ago, a wise man called Sir John Jones, who was a great head teacher and is now an inspirational educationalist, said that you should always use the same ideas for all your assemblies and speeches, whether you are speaking to the youngest in the school or the oldest.  Pupils of different ages will take different messages away, but you should always share the same thoughts with them because children of all ages can understand far more than we often think they can. 

It is also important not to talk for too long, which you will all know is not a skill I have ever really mastered.  When the Duke of Edinburgh died in April, lots of the things he had said during his life were repeated, and not all them were rude.  My favourite was when he was asked what it was like to have to listen to lots of speeches.  He said he always preferred short ones, because the mind cannot absorb what the backside cannot endure. 

Once upon a time, a man was stuck on his rooftop in a flood and he was praying to God for help.  Soon a man in a rowing boat came by and he shouted to the man on the roof, "Jump in, I can save you."  The stranded man shouted back, "No, it's all right, I'm praying to God and he is going to save me." So the rowing boat moved on. 

Then a motorboat came by.  The fellow in the motorboat shouted, "Jump in, I can save you."  To this the stranded man said, "No thanks, I'm praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith." 

So the motorboat went on. 

Then a helicopter came by and the pilot shouted down, "Grab this rope and I will lift you to safety." 

To this the stranded man again replied, "No thanks, I'm praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith."  So the helicopter reluctantly flew away. 

Soon the water rose above the rooftop and the man drowned. He went to Heaven, where he finally got his chance to talk to God. "I had faith in you, but you didn't save me.  You let me drown. I don't understand why!" 

To this, God sighed and rolled his eyes in exasperation. "I sent you a rowing boat.  Then I sent you a motorboat.  Then I sent you a helicopter.  You turned them all down.  What more did you expect me to do?” 

I think the moral of the story is that there are opportunities all around us, even in the darkest of times, but we need to be alert to them and to try to take them when they are offered. 

Since March last year, when we first began to understand the effects that the pandemic might have on our lives, we have all been trying to come to terms with what it means and how it will change the world we used to know.  Most people do not like change because it makes them uncomfortable, but we have all now experienced one of the most significant events that is ever likely to happen to us in our lifetimes.  And, for the vast majority of us, we are all right.  We have survived, we have coped and we have learned from the experience. 

We have suffered loss.  In the worst cases, we may know someone who has died.  More likely, we have lost some freedoms and missed some chances to do the things we enjoy.  We have not been able to spend time with our friends.  We have been cooped up indoors for months at a time.  Whisper it quietly, we have missed being at school, because we actually quite like school – though we are far too cool to admit it.  

When we have been in school, our options have been limited.  We have not been able to play much sport, particularly against other schools; we have not been able to do our usual music and drama performances, and those we have done have been without a live audience; and we have not always been able to mix across different age groups because we had to stay in our bubbles. 

But despite all the restrictions, and while appreciating that it may not always feel like it, I’m pretty sure we are stronger now for what we have been through.  We are more resilient, more able to deal with setbacks.  We have a better sense of perspective about what is important and what is not.  We understand that we have a genuine chance to make the world a better place.  We have been disrupted from our normality, but we may actually be in better place ourselves as a result. 

A man called Rutger Bregman, in a book called ‘Humankind: A Hopeful History’, wrote that there is a persistent myth that by their very nature humans are selfish, aggressive and quick to panic.  It is known as Veneer Theory: the idea that civilisation is nothing more than a thin veneer that will crack at the merest provocation.  But in reality, the opposite is true.  It is when crisis hits – when the bombs fall, or the floodwaters rise, or the pandemic strikes – that we humans become our best selves.  Catastrophes actually bring out the best in people, though the media would often seem to want us to believe exactly the opposite. 

In the same book, the author highlights a story that he found on the internet, though no one seems to know where it comes from:  An old man says to his grandson, ‘There’s a fight going on inside me.  It’s a terrible fight between two wolves.  One is evil – angry, greedy, jealous, arrogant and cowardly.  The other is good – peaceful, loving, modest, generous, honest and trustworthy.  These two wolves are also fighting within you, and inside every other person too.’  After a moment, the boy asks, ‘Which wolf will win?’  The old man smiles.  ‘The one you feed.’ 

At the recent final assembly for Year 11 pupils, Mrs Bruce used a slide from Charlie Mackesy’s book called ‘The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse’.  It is a beautiful book, with lots of lovely illustrations and some thoughtful words that the characters exchange as they go on their journey.  When she asked if the pupils had read it, no one seemed to have done so, even though it has been one of the best-selling books of the last two years – but maybe they were just being cool again. 

I can’t remember which character was speaking each time, but there were some really nice ideas in the book.  For example: 

  • What do you think is the biggest waste of time?  Comparing yourself to others. 

  • Don’t measure how valuable you are by the way you are treated. 

  • Imagine how we would be if we were less afraid. 

  • Often the hardest person to forgive is yourself. 

  • What’s your best discovery.  That I’m enough as I am. 

  • What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said?  Help. 

  • Asking for help isn’t giving up.  It’s refusing to give up. 

  • What do you want to be when you grow up?  Kind. 

  • Being kind to yourself is one of the greatest kindnesses. 

  • Nothing beats kindness.  It sits quietly beyond all things. 

  • The greatest illusion is that life should be perfect. 

I’ve been saying quite a lot recently that I increasingly get the sense that the world is genuinely beginning to change.  There is a growing realisation that the old ways are not fit for purpose, that middle-aged white men are often not the best people to lead us, and that equality, diversity and inclusion are the values we need in order to tackle the major challenges ahead of us.  People with pointy elbows who want to get ahead at all costs may have had their time.  Instead, people who care, who are compassionate and who are kind are needed. 

You may know of Sandie Toksvig from the television or the radio.  She wrote a book to show how important and influential women have been throughout history, but also to show how often they have been ignored.  For example, you may also know about Martin Luther King and the Great March on Washington that took place even before I was born, back in 1963.  Even though they played an important role, the women involved with the march were not treated well.   

The activist Anna Hedgeman helped to organise the event, personally recruiting 40,000 participants and making sure everyone had food and water.  Despite this, she was not allowed to march at the front and was not allowed to speak.   

When Dr King famously declared, ‘I have a dream’, she recalls that she cried and scribbled on her programme how she wished he had said, ‘We have a dream’.  After the address, Dr King and all the male leaders of the march were invited to the White House to meet the president.  Not one of the women who was there, including the legendary Rosa Parks, who had refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, was asked to go with them. 

But the world can be changed and progress can be made.  For example, Toksvig also tells us about Ayesha Farooq, who is Pakistan’s first and only female combat-ready pilot, and who flies alongside twenty-four male colleagues in Squadron 20.  When asked for a message for young women in her country, she said, ‘Instead of looking up to role models, become one yourself.’  Good advice, indeed. 

Before I finish, we need to say thank you and goodbye to the staff who are moving on this year.  From our support staff, who do so much to support us all, as the title implies, we said, or are saying, farewell to Jess Radford and Lisa Heales from the reception team, Elena Ciurea from the finance department, Georgie O’Neal and Ella Carter from admissions and marketing, Imran Daula from IT, Akbar El-Kaddi, our French language assistant, and Alison Giuffredi, the Bistro Supervisor. 

From the teaching staff, we said, or are saying, goodbye to Elektra Kamoutsis (Art & Photography), Matthew Morrison (Drama), Jaenette Satherlund (Science), Alex Worsfold (Maths), Daisy Browne (Languages), Joe Muchmore (Head of English) and Laura Gedge (Director of Studies/Geography).   

Thank you to all the staff for everything they have done – let’s give everyone a well deserved round of applause for all their efforts. 

Before anyone outside the world of health and science had really given much thought to coronavirus, and certainly before any sense of a global pandemic, the Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts, said this in a speech to his son’s middle school graduation in June 2017:  

‘From time to time in years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to know the value of justice.  I hope that you will suffer betrayal because that will teach you the importance of loyalty.  Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely from time to time so that you do not take friends for granted.  I wish you bad luck, again, from time to time so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life and understand that your success is not completely deserved and that the failure of others is not completely deserved either.  And when you lose, as you will from time to time, I hope every now and then that your opponent will gloat over your failure.  It is a way for you to understand the importance of sportsmanship.  I hope you will be ignored so you know the importance of listening to others, and I hope you will have just enough pain to learn compassion.  Whether I wish these things or not, they are going to happen.  And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.’ 

We have all had to deal with misfortunes, from the man on the roof who missed his chances to the trials and tribulations of the pandemic.  Some of what happens is our own fault, but most of the time it is not.  For the most part, we have coped remarkably well – and better than we might have expected.  We have seen the importance of looking after our health, both physical and mental, and we have learned that we are very lucky to live where we live and have the opportunities we have been given, even if we have been frustrated at times.  Life has for the most part dealt us all a very good hand of cards, so let us make sure we make the most everything we have.   

As the author Vivian Greene said, ‘Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about learning to dance in the rain.’ 

Well done – for everything!  Have a great summer and we will go again in September, for what I am sure we all hope will be a much more normal and straightforward year. 

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