As I stand here this morning

Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

Changed for Good (September 2021)

The trouble with schools is they always try to teach the wrong lesson. They want you to become less callow, less shallow. But I say: why invite stress in? Those who don’t try never look foolish, dancing through life, make sure you’re where less trouble is rife. Woes are fleeting, blows are glancing when you’re dancing through life.

Those aren’t my words – I’m quoting. The clue is in the rhymes – I love a good rhyme (and the writers I’m stealing from are masters of the art) but outside of song and poetry it sounds forced. I hope that when you know me better you’ll see that another clue is in the views expressed – this isn’t how I think about either school or life – but right now you’re not sure what to expect from a principal, not sure what to expect from an assembly and even if you’d made guesses I don’t suppose many of you would have imagined I’d start by quoting from Wicked, the musical.

You can expect a lot of musical theatre in today’s assembly. More widely you can expect assemblies to be full of reference to songs and poems and books – words and writing of all sorts. You can expect advice on how to succeed at Harris Westminster and, sometimes, more generally in life itself. You can expect to be invited to look deeper into the world in the hope of seeing more, to be invited to work harder in the hope of being better. Possibly best of all you can expect to be given glimpses of yellow brick roads and emerald cities that we won’t have time to explore together but which you could look into for yourselves. The challenge of any assembly is what have you learned from it and, better, what are you going to learn more about as a result.

For a long time I affected disdain for musicals – loud, uncomfortable, and the songs are inefficient devices for speeding the action – but this was a poor attitude. Firstly, it’s foolish to decide that a certain kind of art, or joy, or knowledge is not for you – you may have tried it a couple of times but it’s always worth coming back to, giving another go, rather than allowing yourself to develop prejudices; and secondly, musicals are properly brilliant! I love how they combine the talents of different people. To write a musical requires a composer for the tunes, a lyricist for the words, and a story-teller to link it all together. To put one on requires a director and a choreographer to turn words on a page into a performance, and that’s all before you get to the actors and dancers and singers that actually appear on stage.

Wicked is a stage production of a book that is, itself, based on Frank L Baum’s book which has been made into a movie as The Wizard of Oz. Something you should also know before we go on is that I enjoy intertextuality – making references to other people’s work, especially if their work references something else. I hope you’ll take opportunities to join in the game of quoting and misquoting in your time here. There is a fleeting allusion to Dumbledore later – you may pat yourself on the back if you catch it. The line I started with is from a song called “Dancing through Life”, performed by the character Fiero who always seeks the easy and untaxing way. Let me go back to the song and fill in a line or two that I elided earlier.

The trouble with schools is
They always try to teach the wrong lesson
Believe me, I've been kicked out
Of enough of them to know
They want you to become less callow
Less shallow
But I say: why invite stress in?
Stop studying strife
And learn to live "the unexamined life"...

Did you catch that last line (after the lovely “lesson”-“stress in” rhyme)? “Stop studying strife and learn to live the unexamined life.” He’s alluding to someone else here, to Socrates who, according to Plato, said at his trial “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Fiero clearly disagrees, although there’s a certain irony to quoting Greek philosophers in a song about the errors of working on your education.

I’m going to put a pin in that argument and move onto another song from Wicked. This one is called “For Good” and the wordplay is quite transcendent – I recommend listening to the performance by Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel and enjoying the cleverness later. The lyric I want to focus on is this:

I've heard it said,
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn.
And we are led to those
Who help us most to grow if we let them.
And we help them in return.
Well, I don't know if I believe that's true
But I know I'm who I am today
Because I knew you.
Who can say if I've been changed for the better
But because I knew you I have been changed for good.

And so we get to the crucial idea, the application of my poetic sources to you. Some of you have danced through life thus far – or, at least, through school. You’re clever, GCSEs are easy, some of you have got by without learning to work hard and may be expecting that the same will be true for your A-levels. Perhaps you think I'll say something like “you need to work hard” and perhaps you plan to ignore it – that’s what Principals say after all, but why invite stress in? But Principals don't usually quote musicals, so think again, that isn’t how it works. Who can say if you’ll be changed for the better, but because of Harris Westminster you’ll be changed for good (which is the brilliant wordplay from this song – a pun is more pleasing even than a rhyme). You may have caught the article about us that appeared in the Spectator last week – if not then the quick version is this:

1) you have done brilliantly well to get into Harris Westminster – the top 300 from two and a half thousand hopefuls
2) students from Harris Westminster go on to top universities in numbers greater than almost every school in the country (we were eighth on their list – way above most private schools), and
3) The privilege of getting in to Harris Westminster is the privilege of working hard to meet that next challenge – the rhymesmiths might say something like “it’s not a magic pill you swallow, it’s a way of life to follow.

Perhaps Harris Westminster has come into your life for a reason, that we will help you most to grow, if you let us. These two years are going to shape and mould you; there’s no way to dance your way through them, you have to work hard. Actually, if you throw yourself into it, you’ll find that the hard work is fun and rewarding. If you look out for new opportunities to learn, new ways of thinking to embrace, new joys to be part of then the change will be overwhelmingly for the better – Harris Westminster can bring you closer to being the kind of person you really want to be.

And this brings us back to that argument I put a pin in. What about Fiero and Socrates? Well, Socrates is one of the most renowned philosophers of all time, and his sayings – as recounted by Plato – are still read two and a half thousand years later. Fiero, meanwhile, grew up. He found that if you don’t try you don’t look foolish but also you don’t achieve anything, and, worse, you let other people do nasty things. He stopped dancing, found his courage, faced woes that weren’t fleeting and blows that weren’t glancing, and became a hero. I don’t expect you to face blows and I’ll do my best to minimise the woes, but you are all going to have to learn to work harder, to learn more, to look deeper, to think more extensively than you have before. It’s not going to be easy, but it is going to be fun, and together we will be changed for good.