As I stand here this morning

Assemblies from the archives of Harris Westminster Sixth Form

Late June (June 2022)

Celebration term is hastening by and soon it will be Late June. Late June! What do those words bring to mind? Sunny days? Warm evenings? Examinations? Revision? All of those things and maybe an oblique reference to a poem?

In advance of late June, I propose to face the reality of Celebration term – the fact that our celebration of how clever you are, how much you know and how hard you’ve worked takes the form of a series of unavoidable examinations. It’s a reality I delight in – I think it’s brilliant that we celebrate those things, that you have a moment to strut your stuff, to show off, to put yourself to the test. It’s also a reality that I recognise as not being pure joy and I propose to face that too.

The way I shall face it, according to my own inscrutable idiom, is to tell you a story from my disreputable past, introduce you to a personal hero, quote a bit of poetry in passing, and tie it up with some sound advice. You will, of course, have your own idioms, scrutable or otherwise, but face this reality you must and I offer my words to you as a survivor of many examination halls, for I too was young once and celebrated in this way.

In the long-forgotten years before setting up Harris Westminster I used to play rugby. Not to a very high standard, you understand: I took up the game as an adult and never acquired a good set of silky skills. I did, however, manage to find my niche as someone who would keep running, keep tackling, keep going no matter how many fat men trampled over him. Rugby is a wonderful game with many niches – there’s space for silky skills, there’s space for brute strength, and there’s space for a gangly collection of arms and legs that doesn’t mind being trampled now and then. The key distinction, however, is between forwards (who are the heavier lumps) and backs (who tend to be fleeter of foot). I played in both roles, but for the purposes of today I was a full-back, the loneliest person on the pitch, and one of the roles of the full-back is that when the opposition kick the ball forward you have to catch it. You stand there, alone, watching the ball sailing high into the air, following its flight, hearing the sound of the opposition bearing down upon you – fifteen of them determined to trample you into the mud. It slows as it reaches its zenith, tips and accelerates towards you. Then the moment of truth comes – if you catch it then you’re in control, you can make some decisions, pass, kick run; if, however, you drop it, then the ball will bounce towards that onrushing herd and your best hope is to dive on it before they scoop it up or score – either way this does not end well for you.

In that moment of focus you have to live in the moment, to concentrate. You can’t think of the onrushing forwards, you can’t look down to see how close they are, you can’t get an early start on deciding what you’ll do next – you have to concentrate on the ball sailing towards you, concentrate on that catch. You put everything out of your mind, remember your training, remember the advice you’ve been given. Time pauses, the moment stretches out, and then it clicks back, the ball lands in your arms, you look up, make your decision and set off.

My advice came from a guy called Errol. Errol was brilliant – a Jamaican bricklayer, electrician, carpenter who had been a soldier – played rugby at quite a high level with the army. He told us that as a young man he had been such a fast runner that when they were training he used to have to start his sprints lying down to give the others a chance. By the time I met him he was older older than me – slower, wiser – definitely wiser than me. He told you what to do and you did it.

Actually you didn’t, not always, that’s not how humans work. I remember one time he gave us our instructions before the move started but then things didn’t go how I expected, rugby never does, he didn’t seem to be running in the right direction, he hadn’t passed to me, had he forgotten, had the plan changed. I made some quick decisions, made a new plan, changed the way I was running, got into the wrong place, ran straight into Errol, dropped the ball, looked rather silly. Errol was not impressed – did I not understand the instructions, did I not trust him? Did I think I knew better than him?

Some time later there were some new instructions – I was to stand 10 feet behind and to Errol’s right and wait for him to pass me the ball. There was a scrum – sixteen heaving forwards ploughing up the ground. In an ideal world they would heel the ball carefully backwards, someone would whip it to Errol and off we’d go, but this wasn’t a day for ideal worlds. It was rather chaotic, the scrum went sideways, the ball skedaddled across the turf, everyone started running towards it. Everyone except for me – I stayed 10 feet behind and to Errol’s right and so when, somehow, Errol got the ball I was where he expected and his pass came straight to me. I ran through the chaos and scored a glorious try. Thanks to Errol.

Exams are like rugby matches – but less muddy and with a much lower chance of getting trampled. You’re on your own, facing a daunting test, needing to use all your skill, your training, wise words of advice in your ear. You need to live in that moment, put all other thoughts aside and focus on the question in front of you. And so, in preparation for the trials of late June, I’d like to take the role of Errol and give you some advice.

1. Make sure you’re organised and on time. The worst start to a rugby match is arriving at the ground late, borrowing a pair of boots and running onto the pitch still pulling up your socks. Know where you’re meant to be and when, have the equipment you need and put the things you don’t in your locker. Aim to be early – that way you won’t be late.

2. Look after yourself before and during the exam period. Rugby players eat properly and get enough sleep (or at least the good ones do). Don’t revise late into the night, it’s counter-productive; don’t cut out spending time with friends and family (this is not an invitation to indulge in five hour Fifa sessions, but an encouragement to value relaxation time).

3. Don’t over-emphasise what you’re doing. These are a practice for the real thing – it’s a match, but a friendly one. You need to do your best but shouldn’t worry that your best might not be good enough. This is a long game and in the long term, gains come from learning from your experience.

4. Live in that moment – there’s no point beating yourself up over work you’ve not done in the past, you just have to do your best with where you are and use the future to make wiser choices. This is the heart of response – this is what we’ve been trying to teach you this year.

5. Enjoy it – even whilst you’re being trampled by fifteen rugby players – or the exam question equivalent – you’re being trampled way better than almost anyone else could be trampled – you’re being trampled magnificently – and then, sometimes, that pass will go to hand, the kick over the top will work, the chaos will open up and you’ll be able to run through and score a magnificent answer. I think my metaphor got away from me there, but my point is that hard questions are hard for everyone and are an opportunity for you, who are all brilliant, to shine.

It’s good advice – take it or you’ll look silly. And now for some poetry – soothing balm in time of trial – Adlestrop by Edward Thomas, the poem I’ve been alluding to all this time.

Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And in that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

And in that minute a blackbird sang, close by, and round him mistier, farther and farther, all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. In that minute, in late June, the ball sails high above the field, the examiner says “you may open your papers”, time slows and crystalises, you can hear your breathing, your heart beating, you read the first question on the paper - and in that minute a blackbird sings – there is beauty and peace even here – you’re the right person in the right place at the right time with the right skills, the right advice – time clicks back into place, you catch the ball, make your decisions – kick, pass, run, pick up your pen and start writing, and round you, mistier, farther and farther, all your classmates.

Exams are a celebration of how much you know, how hard you’ve worked and how clever you are – look after yourself, enjoy them, live in that moment, and don’t listen too hard for the blackbird – it might be metaphorical.