As I stand here this morning

Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

The Orb of Life (March 2022)

I spoke to you in my last assembly about Isabel Allende’s ability to spin a story from a pebble. Since then I have borrowed her first novel: The House of the Spirits from the library and am enjoying it – I recommend that you borrow it once I’ve finished. This morning I have a similar quotation, from another great wordsmith, Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore was a Bengali poet, playwright, author, novelist and essayist of the first half of the twentieth century. He is the only person to be responsible for the words of two National Anthems (India and Bangladesh) and is arguably (please take your pens out and make a note in your assembly books – is this something you would argue in favour of, or against), arguably the second great architect of modern India, after Mahatma Gandhi. They publicly fell out in 1921 over Gandhi’s cult of the spinning wheel, Tagore opposed the approach to which Gandhi said “If you can do nothing else for me you can, at least, lead the nation and spin”. Tagore’s reply was “Poems I can spin, songs I can spin, but what a mess I would make, Gandhiji, of your precious cotton”.

On his 70th birthday, in 1931, Tagore said “I have, it is true, engaged myself in a series of activities. But the innermost me is not to be found in any of these. At the end of the journey I am able to see, a little more clearly, the orb of my life. Looking back, the only thing of which I feel certain is that I am a poet”.

The question for today is how does one get to the point where you can look at the orb of your life and say “yes, I am a poet”, or public servant, or physicist, or friend, or teacher? I guess one answer is that it helps to be 70 rather than 17, looking back rather than looking forwards – I don’t think that we should be expecting to be able to make these decisions now, I say “we” – I’m obviously mostly thinking of you, but I’m a youthful and sprightly 48 and definitely feeling closer to 17 than I am to 70, no matter what the arithmetic tells me. Tagore didn’t do only poetry, he wrote prolifically and promiscuously across a wide variety of areas, he travelled, he campaigned against the mistreatment of Dalit people in India, he publicly sent back his knighthood to George V in protest against the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. When we look back at the orbs of our lives and try to see clearly what we are, what we have been, we shouldn’t be looking at a black and white stick figure, instantly recognisable and crudely drawn, but one fleshed out in shades of grey – grey, but also purple and emerald and cerulean blue.

I shall return to Tagore, but let’s step away for a moment to get another viewpoint on that question, in an essay of 1942, CS Lewis wrote “You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.” He was talking here of joys and jobs and saying that joys only make sense when they are incidental to the jobs, the main purpose of life. One of my favourite things is to sit down on a Saturday morning and to have buttered eggs and black coffee – it is half an hour of pure hedonism, but if I changed my schedule so that every morning, instead of slurping down a cup of tea and rushing off to make the 7.20 train from Sidcup, I settled down to leisurely coffee and eggs, I’d lose not only my job, but also the joy of the coffee and eggs – they’d be tainted, time stolen rather than earned, commonplace rather than treasured. That half hour is a joy because it is bookended by my actual responsibilities.

Ms White has emphasised the importance of having joy in your week and I would completely concur. I work hard at being Principal, but in my week I have time for coffee and eggs, I have time to read Isabel Allende, I have time (on my carefully-guarded Thursday evenings) to enjoy the ridiculousness of Dungeons and Dragons. You should have joys – but they should come second: they should not be your main focus, they must not be allowed to take time from your responsibilities. That first half day of rest when the vacation comes round is a precious joy – slumped on the sofa watching junk TV or simply kicking a ball around with a friend. But, if you let the resting get away from you, let it take over the time that should be spent reading or reviewing then that joy is watered down, the delight turns to boredom, guilt, frustration. First things must come first and second things second.

So, what are the first things? I think the answer depends on where you are in your Harris Westminster career – there is a time for all things but that does not mean that all things happen at the same time. If you are in Year 13 it should be clear that your final exams are almost upon you and that your priority should be getting ready for them. You have less than two months left at school, less than 50 periods of teaching left in each subject: make sure you take advantage of each minute. My top tips, therefore are

1) Come to the lessons prepared: make sure you’ve done your homework, your pre-reading; make sure you know what questions you want answering; make sure you’re on time.

2) Step up your homework: you should definitely be doing 16 hours plus of study outside lessons now. Mr Lloyd enumerated the 168 weekly hours in his last assembly – there’s time to do more study and have more joy, so long as you put the first things first.

3) Don’t squander your goodwill: your teachers are here to help you and that can only be a good thing, but if you fritter away their energy by being late, or incorrectly dressed, or by vaping, or whatever other ridiculousness catches your eye then there is simply less resource left to assist you with your goals. You know the rules, they’re not hard to follow – just do it and find some other windmill to tilt at over the summer.

If, however, you’re in Year 12, then things are different. Exams are definitely not the first thing, learning is, exams are one of the second things, and if you put the second things first, if you prioritise the end of years, or the assessment weeks above the quotidian challenges of expanding your understanding of the universe and all it contains, then you lose not just the first thing, but also the second: the reason we emphasise the joy of learning, the acquisition of scholarship, the development of hinterland is because this is the way to be ultimately successful in your final exams. All of those broader delights of Harris Westminster that I spoke about a few weeks ago are the first things – they are why you are here. The time for second things will come: Resilience of Year 13 is less than a year away and when you get there, I will be encouraging you to tighten your Mechanics, to get exam-ready, to give up some of your more lurid pastimes to spend longer with your textbooks, but now is not that time, now is the spring and summer of Year 12, the sun is shining and you should be making hay.

I promised to return to Tagore, and so back I come, to one of his poems – translated into English at least partly because nobody wants to hear my execrable Bengali. Poetry can be a first or a second thing – it can be an exploration of who you are, a development of your understanding of humanity, or language; and it can be a joy, a moment of soaring liberation from the shackles of mundanity. Year 12 or Year 13, seventeen years old or forty-eight, I commend it to you. Gitanjali means “an offering of songs” – this poem is Gitanjali 35: it is Rabindranath Tagore’s vision of heaven and isn’t far from my vision for Harris Westminster.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action—
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.