Speech Day. It’s a rite of passage. Annually for 14 years, sometimes twice a year if you have children in two different schools or different parts of the school. You normally sit in a big white tent, having just aerated the cricket pitch with your heels. I am not sure whether I did a good thing there, I think it might be marginally better than walking on a golfing green with heels. In any event, walking on your tip toes and then occasionally sinking into the ground when you are least expecting it, does not for an elegant entrance make. My children did not walk in close proximity.
You then sit there and either cannot hear anything because the British weather has decided to outdo the PA system by hammering the roof of the tent with a predictable downpour or you cannot decide whether it would be rude to sit ‘inside’ with your sunglasses on because the glare coming off the white fabric is getting quite unbearable and it’s hot and your feet are swelling bigger by the minute in said heels. It would ensure a permanent exclusion zone from your children if you took them off on your way back to the car park. Doing that then.
In preparation for a dull afternoon, I had my Speech Day bingo card ready – write down 10 words you think will be mentioned, tick them off as they are spoken (you get a star if the headmaster uses the word in his speech) – if you tick them all – well it’s up to you if you stand up and shout “Bingo!” I got 9, phew.
The point of the day is to reflect on the year and to honour those who have achieved. A lot of silverware and envelopes changing hands – 13 pages worth of prizes. That’s a lot of clapping. My hands hurt but I was most impressed with the fairly recently appointed deputy head, who held her own pronouncing the pupils’ names. She had done her homework. Gold star. This is all part of the day, an important part, with the smiles and applause well deserved for those who made their way onto the stage, but even more emphasis was given to fortitude and overcoming obstacles, pushing your boundaries and simply trying hard, and this is so much more important than winning.
Reflecting back on the last year meant remembering two pupils from Year 7 who lost their lives in a car accident before Christmas. I did not know them personally, but as a mother, I struggled to keep it together when the head girl asked everyone to pay tribute to these young women by giving them a round of applause. It was resounding. A fitting statement of respect, gratitude and memory. The prize for showing fortitude when facing adversity was given to the whole of Year 7.
It was clear from the headmaster’s words that the school community had come together in a remarkable way in the face of this tragedy. What I found equally impressive is what sort of people the head girl and boy were. They did get their fair share of prizes, but by no means did they clear up. They were chosen not because they were the best at everything but because of what sort of people they are. The head girl recounted the start of her time at the school with the sentence “and this is where I discovered my love for sport”. Everybody laughed. With her. Not at her, rejoiced in her telling of failed attempts at trying all the different sports available, not making a lasting impression in any of them. She was not boasting about her achievements, of which I am sure there were many. She was funny, she was engaging, she was clearly respected by her peers and teachers and she had a knack for finding the balance in her speech between honouring the memory of her friends and being able to laugh at her failures. Only they weren’t failures in isolation, they were learning experiences and she embraced them wholeheartedly because along with her triumphs they were a part of her life and these experiences will continue to be a part of what is to come. And if she can deal with them thus, then she will just fly.
She also wore her hair in two ‘Helga’ plaits. Being German I thought this was a rather sweet nod in my direction. But alas, no. Anna, one of the girls who died, helped her with her hair when she played a German character in the school play, plaiting them tighter at every performance and then daring her to wear her hair like that on Speech Day. So she did, and I am sure Anna was smiling with us at this very touching gesture of remembrance.
The head boy concluded his speech with a word of advice for the pupils who will remain at the school. To reflect on the fact that they are so very privileged to be educated there. To be grateful for the opportunities that they will be given and to grab them with both hands, step outside their comfort zone and just try. I say this to my children all the time but as I am SO old and clearly not in touch with anything they deem to be reality, it may just sink in coming from him.
If these are the children that will be our researchers, youth workers, doctors, law makers and teachers, then the future is a bright one indeed.