As I stand here this morning

Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

Boot Confidence (April 2022)

Good morning. I’m Mr Handscombe and these are my boots. Today I’m here to tell you a little about myself, a little about my boots, and a lot about confidence. I shall be quoting a great poet, but we’ll start with the words of Anne Boleyn according to the musical “Six”, “Henry’s out every night on the town, just sleeping around. Like what the hell, if that’s how it’s going to be maybe I’ll flirt with a guy or three.” Henry and Anne do not have a faithful marriage on either side, but life’s not fair, Anne gets executed, Henry moves on to make four more women miserable. The whole musical is about this unfairness, both in how the wives were treated at the time, and in how they’ve been dealt with by history: lumped together, learned as one word in a rhyme, all individuality and brilliance lost. It’s an interesting challenge to us in how we think about the past, but my point today is that we live in a world that isn’t fair, where there are terrible people who do some terrible things while many others suffer unjustly. Our challenge is how to live in such a world, to find a way to be neither Anne nor Henry and my question for you today is how can we be confident in an unfair and unreliable world, and what kind of confidence we should have.

To illustrate this, I shall use the metaphor of my boots – boots that are the source of my confidence, boots that come from a long line of boots (worn out and replaced over the years) dating back to my sixth form when my feet finally reached the size of my father’s and he said I could wear his boots. I was a weird and skinny teenager – geeky, socially awkward, without any discernable physical virtue – and I found clothes very hard. I wasn’t interested in wearing the right ones, but I didn’t want the wrong ones to attract the attention of bullies. Trainers were particularly difficult – I never had the right brand, never really knew what the right brand was, for me they were just meant to keep my feet comfortable but for my classmates they were an invitation to cruel remarks. Boots changed my life – nobody was going to ask what brand my boots were – I could be comfortable without worrying, I could walk out with my head held high. My boots gave me confidence to be the kind of person I wanted to be.

My boots also gave me the confidence to walk. Rather than getting the bus a few stops or asking for a lift when I had an errand a couple of miles away, I set out on foot. Buttressed against the cold in an oversized coat (also a gift from my father), I was able to explore the roads around my house, to find a comfortable pace of just over 4 miles an hour, to have time alone to think with nothing but fresh air and the easy swing of the leg to distract me.

Boots are a good metaphor for confidence, for the confidence to be yourself and not worry too much about making sure you fit in, and the confidence that your own body is amazing, that it can do things, take you places, take care of you. There is a danger in confidence, though – there’s a danger that you are so independent that you no longer take advice, that you stop listening; there’s a danger that you use your physical confidence to harm others. I don’t want to fall into either of these traps, I don’t want you to fall into them, and so I turn to the poet who wrote about both, also using the metaphor of boots.

The poem is too long to recite in its entirety and has some challenging vocabulary, but the key lines are these:
“You’re getting way too big for your boots
You’re never too big for the boot
I’ve got the big size twelves on my feet
Your face ain’t big for my boot.”

The poet is wrestling with the challenges of being a young man with big feet – being accused of being too big for his boots, of wondering whether violence, the boot, is the desirable or inevitable answer. I think the poem comes from a place of confusion and anger, of recognizing that the world isn’t fair, that some people get away with things whilst others are punished; I think it resolves into self-confidence, but we don’t quite see what kind: is it self confidence that strays into arrogance or physical dominance, or is it something better?

The poet is, as you may already know, Stormzy, and I think we can answer some of these questions by looking at how he carries himself, how he lives his life. Have you seen the video to Blinded by your Grace? The way it starts with him holding Kyra front and centre – saying “you’re gonna roll with me today”. Stormzy’s a big man in size twelve boots using his strength to make a small girl feel confident. Have you seen the interview of Stormzy going back to his primary school and answering questions from seven year olds – telling them not to give their time to wastemen. This is someone whose confidence doesn’t bring arrogance, it brings him back to his roots to lift others up. One of their questions is how to become a celebrity and he says that you shouldn’t try – what you should do is find what you love and do it so hard and so well that you make a difference to other people. Have you seen that he’s given a big chunk of money to provide scholarships to black students going to Cambridge. Confidence that learning matters, confidence to use what he’s earned to help others.

In one of his other songs he says “searchin’ every corner of my mind, lookin’ for the answers I can’t find. I have my reasons and life have its lessons and I tried to be grateful and count all my blessings.” This is my second challenge to you today – the first one was to be the right kind of confident: boots confident, Stormzy confident – the second challenge is to take advantage of your opportunities – make your blessings count, look for the answers, search every corner of your mind. I want you to make a difference to this unfair world – to make it better for yourselves, for those who you love, for those who come after you, for those who share it with you – but you won’t make that difference without pushing yourself, without working hard, without throwing yourself into your opportunities.

And I’m going to finish with a final lesson from Stormzy, because Stormzy is clever, and he listens, and he quotes, and the next line of that song is “But heavy is the head that wears the crown”, which is a misquote of Henry IV’s line from Shakespeare’s play. A hundred years before Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn the old king had a different problem – he couldn’t sleep: his responsibilities kept him awake while his wastrel son gallivanted with the criminals of London and, restless in the dark, he says “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”. Henry IV comes in two parts, this is part two, and is about a young man growing up, gaining confidence, learning to use that confidence, making some bad decisions – I commend it to you, along with the sequel, Henry V, in which we see what kind of man that wastrel son became.

Be confident, but take your responsibilities seriously, be confident, but don’t take advantage of others, be confident, but don’t give up on learning, on sharing, on quoting the genius of those who have come before. Be boots-confident.