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People, not things

Another summer term has drawn to a close and another successful Speech Day has allowed us to send off with love and every best wish both departing staff and 150 or so departing A2s.

It’s always a time of nostalgia (how can you forget those 18 year-olds as their 13-year-old selves, bright eyed, bushy tailed and very nervous, five short years ago?). But mostly this time of year is a time of looking forward, we hope not too sentimentally, to the great things ahead of them in life. It’s what makes this job of mine the best in the world.

Speech Day allows me to see these young men and women ready to move on and ready to achieve still more. It allows me too to say to them my final words as their Head. This year I spoke of David Foster Wallace, Ken Robinson and Gillian Lynne. The theme, as mine so often is, was about what really matters in life.

There can’t be anyone on the planet who has children in a school who hasn’t listened to Ken Robinson’s TED Talk. But those of you who don’t know David Foster Wallace’s This is Water might like to add it to your own summer reading list. It’s short because it’s a commencement speech (a graduation speech, I think, in British English) and it’s a really good read. He talks about the absolute necessity of knowing what it is that matters to you. Of never ignoring the blazingly obvious. Of looking after your inner self so that you can be a social and happy self too. I recommend it to you in the warmest terms. Here’s its opening, to whet your appetite:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning boys. How’s the water?”

And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

It’s important in life that we work out what we really need and what it is that really matters. It won’t be the size of your house or how much you earn that makes you happy. It will be how you feel about yourself and how you then interrelate with others. As David Foster Wallace puts it, “In the twenty years since my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand … that the liberal arts cliché about ‘teaching you to think’ was actually shorthand for a very deep and important truth. ‘Learning to think’ really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

For me, how I keep that control is by reminding myself of an old friend’s wonderfully simple, rather hippy mantra, “People, not things”. By reading and immersing myself, whenever I can, in an internal imaginative landscape. By spending time with my husband and daughters. By walking the dogs and finding time for quiet reflection.

The A2s, as they leave this wonderful garden, will go on to play their part in the world. We hope very much that they will take Bryanston with them. As part of them. Take with them the memories of their friends, their teachers, their (best in the world) Chaplain. We very much hope that they have learned to enjoy learning, of course; but more than that, that they have learned the importance of friendship, of shared experiences, of their own emotional and spiritual well-being. That they have real goals, not fake, hollow goals. That they know how to love life. That they put people before things.

I am about to sign off for a little while and head off for a summer holiday. I’m taking a pile of books up a long lane in Devon (with no internet connection, I hope), re-establishing my link with quiet, and having fun with family and friends too. I wish you all a wonderful and fun-filled summer too. See you all back refreshed in September.

Tagged  Reflection