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Life is the adventure

A few weeks ago I spoke at my last Speech Day as a Head of Bryanston School. A leitmotif of my final chance to hold forth to a full Greek Theatre was of not outstaying one’s welcome and knowing when it is the right time to stay or to go. I used one of my favourite poems, which I quoted on my first Speech Day at Bryanston 14 years ago, as part of the text. 

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
C. P. Cavafy
(Translated by Edmund Keeley)
For me this is the most remarkable poem, and for many reasons. It talks of life as something one shouldhope will be an adventure, a road full of discovery. It talks about the monsters you will find onyour way: the Laestrygonians, Cyclopes, and even an angry Poseidon. It talks too of summer mornings and the many harbours you will find where you can buy fine things. Of visiting Egyptian cities to learn (and go on learning) from their scholars. It talks of perhaps,and if so, only finally, finding Ithaka, your homeland to which you will return, and of not being disappointed if she seems now poor after your life well-travelled. Because the point of life is the travel: the point of life is the adventure.
I don’t think I quite knew what I was taking on 14 years ago; I find that Cavafy means just as much or more to me now, as I push off from this harbour and move on to the next. I shall not pretend that I have not met my fair share of Laestrygonians and even the odd Cyclops in my time here. I like Cavafy’s point that we tend to bring these monsters with us; it’s how we respond to the travelling, the adventure, those monsters, and the joyful engagements that life is all about. 

But, oh how the wonderful moments far outshine these monsters. And these wonderful moments are mainly, but not completely, formed around our pupils. That’s why people join the teaching profession: being involved with growing minds and their nurture is the greatest privilege. 
Kairos esti. More Greek, this time ancient. It’s the right time. That sense that, although one’s job may never be fully completed and although there’s always more you can do, that you still love a place and its people, that the mission is as clear as ever, it is, nevertheless, time to move on. It is for me and it is too for our departing A2s. Most of them joined us five years ago and, boy, they’ve grown along the way. Zeynep, our wonderful Head Girl, dancing her socks off here, learning how to stretch right outside her comfort zone, and off to study History of Art and to continue to excel. Some of that is predictable, but I might have expected her to settle for merely being an international skier: not Zeynep. Then Cameron, our Head Boy, who joined us just two years ago in the sixth form, who is my first Head Boy who joined in A3. Cameron’s drive, energy and passion to get things done and done right is a lesson to us all. Together he and Zeynep have led a superb group of prefects and I could not be more proud of all of them. Or of Kate and Amadea off to top music schools in London. Or Sumei off to Durham perhaps, for Modern Languages, to be followed by a Masters in Music, I hope: with a voice like Sumei’s, surely she must! Or Freddie winning not one but two organ scholarships to two prestigious universities and a further one to St Paul’s Within the Walls, Rome and still loving a good suit and a proper cup of tea. Or Luca and his outstanding music and contributions to it all. Or Clara and her remarkable drama. (Will I ever get over her portrayal of me?) Or Callum and his ability to lead, drive, and succeed. Or Molly; wherever she chooses to go to university she’ll be brilliant, and then on, no doubt, to run a small country somewhere. Or Frankie off to Loughborough via Singapore.   Do they represent the hope of our prospectus? To produce well-rounded 18-year-olds ready to go out and contribute to the world. Yes, they do. Is that what we all hope for our children? Lord, I hope so. I want all the A2s to be able to move on and do something. To keep doing and be happy. To be involved and engaged. To know their real worth and what they can bring to the enterprise, whether that’s a ski season in Japan or linguistics at Oxford, I don’t mind. But I do think they should be equipped to deal with this world and to do so in a way which will bring them joy, as Cavafy promises us, on their own road to Ithaka.
As our departing A2s leave to travel along that road, I commend to them first these famous words of Tennessee Williams:
The world can be violent and mercurial and always has been. It will have its way with you. We are saved only by LOVE. Love of each other. Love that we pour into the art that we feel compelled to share. By being a parent, being a writer, being a painter, being a friend.
And finally in my own last words to all A2s: Go out and spread the Bryanston message. The world needs it. Be wonderful. Be an aardvark, a flamingo or a tiger. But, whatever you do, be yourself. And don’t be a sheep. BAAA!

We would like to thank Sarah Thomas for her outstanding leadership of Bryanston throughout her 14 years as Head. We wish Sarah and her family all the best as they set out on the next part of their journey to Ithaka. The next edition of the OB Magazine will include a full valete to Sarah.