Look Street (September 2019)

Good morning, and before we crack on with the assembly I have something for you to think about. It’s a maths puzzle with very little maths in it. Listen carefully: Nikolai and his son went fishing as did Alexander and his son. Nikolai caught three times as many fish as his son whilst Alexander and his son caught exactly the same number of fish. Altogether they caught 35 fish. Now, I can tell you that Nikolai’s son’s name is Josef and what I want to know, as well as the obvious question of how many fish everyone caught is what is Alexander’s son called?

On with the assembly in which I shall be introducing the Harris Westminster jargon of Ambition and Remembrance, giving an example of our unofficial motto in action, sneakily slipping in a run-down of some key rules, and regaling you with some of the highlights of my summer. Let’s start with the unofficial Harris Westminster motto – “Learning is Amazing”. This is a truth universally acknowledged, or at least it’s a precept with which you shouldn’t disagree within the confines of Steel House (Steel House being the official name for Harris Westminster Towers). You’ll note that the motto mentions learning, not academics, not exams, not A-levels: Learning, and so this summer I indulged in a little light learning myself – I decided to learn how to surf. I therefore found a secluded beach in the Southwestern corner of Morocco and employed a chap called Yusuf to teach me. The lessons went well, I had a great time and actually managed to ride some waves but most of the time as I stood up I would wobble, overbalance and fall exuberantly into the Atlantic. As I spluttered to the surface I would hear Yusuf’s helpful criticism “Look Street, James, Look Street”. Now, I’m not fashion conscious at the best of times, but as a forty-five year old in a wetsuit with hair doused in salt-water I felt looking street was going to be a challenge. I paid attention, listened hard, looked as street as I could, and continued to fall in, but as I did so it became clear to me that there had been a misunderstanding – Yusuf was teaching in his fourth language (his Arabic, Berber, and French all being excellent) and what he really wanted to say was “Look Straight”. During the lunch break, in a mixture of English, French and sign language (neither Berber nor Arabic being among my accomplishments), Yusuf explained that surfing was all about attention and balance and that if you wanted to keep your balance and not fall in then you needed your attention to be on balance and that meant looking straight ahead, not down at your feet. Look Street was Yusuf’s way of reminding me that unless I paid attention to the crucial part of what I was trying to learn then I couldn’t expect to learn it and could, in fact, expect another visit to the briny deep.

Where is your attention now? Are you listening to my words, thinking about how what I’m saying can be applied to the challenges you will face this year? Are you still thinking about my fishermen, wondering whether a solution with half a fish is legitimate – it isn’t, by the way? Are you gazing up at the Abbey around you, marvelling at the church that has been here for 750 years and rejoicing in the privilege of being part of its story? Or is your attention elsewhere, distracted by thoughts of the day ahead or regrets of the last twentyfour hours, are you missing out on the experience of right here right now, or, worse, and completely unacceptably, are you actively ignoring that experience, is your attention in fact on your phone, on some social media conversation? In assemblies you are encouraged to have a notebook to jot down thoughts that occur to you, sentences that are worth remembering but it is not ok to have your phone out – it’s just bad manners.

This idea of attention, of looking street, is very powerful for learning: if your attention is on your goal, if your focus is where you want to go, then you’ve much better chances of achieving it than if you’re looking elsewhere. This is why we talk about ambition, and particularly why we talk about ambition now, at the beginning of the school year. Ambition is not the same as a dream – ambition is the path that leads you to your desired goal and for you that means that Ambition passes through academic success. Think about what you want to achieve, what grades you want to get, what university you want to go to, what kind of choices you want to have for your career. To get there you need to make a success of your two years here and to make a success of those you need to keep your attention on that ambition. Too many students say to me when they leave “I wish I’d started earlier – I wasted so much time in Year 12 or in the first term of Year 13”, it took them a long time to realise that their attention needed to be on their ambition. You don’t learn to surf by looking at your feet – you just get wet.

Look Street! But, and this is important, don’t try to look “street” – dressing professionally is part of being part of our community, of showing respect to those you’re studying with and the basic rule is that you should try to dress as smartly as you possibly can. If you’re not sure what that means then follow my example and wear a suit and a tie (or a bow-tie, especially on Fridays, bow-tie Fridays are cool) – it’s a really straightforward way of making sure you present yourself as someone who is taking this seriously and it allows you to keep your attention on your learning rather than your clothes. There are, of course, other good examples to follow amongst the teachers which you may prefer if you find my style too conventionally masculine. Don’t, however, whatever you do, follow this advice, which I found on Student Room (and which, I assume, was written by one of the Year 13s – oh dear, one year in and you’re still getting it wrong). In response to a question about the dress code here someone wrote “My advice would be to play it safe for the first week then slowly start bringing things in, like if you see Year 13s wear them or other Year 12s then try it out.” Please don’t do this – the game isn’t to see what you can get away with so I need to spend my time trying to catch you, the game is to practice being as smart as you can so that I can spend my time trying to teach you things. Let’s all have our attention on learning. Four other rules that I don’t want to get into a fight with you about. 1) I’d rather you didn’t smoke at all, I think there are cheaper ways of making yourself smell bad, but if you do then you must not do it on school premises, on Tothill St, or on the roads between Tothill and Victoria Streets. 2) The alleyway behind the school is out of bounds to all students who do not want to die a very painful death except for those going to or from the basement to park or retrieve their bikes. 3) There are a lot of you and the Tothill St pavement is very narrow. If you congregate there then little old ladies have to step into the road to go round you and then they get squished by buses. Arrange somewhere else to meet, don’t be part of a group that is blocking the pavement, don’t be the reason someone’s granny got squished. 4) Occasionally, after a long day at school, I like to go to one of the hostelries nearby and enjoy a glass of lemonade. This enjoyment is inevitably ruined if I come across one of you. If you also enjoy an occasional glass of lemonade then please avoid the pubs within 400m of the school – those are my pubs. The rest of London is full of pubs. Those are your pubs, go to one of those, don’t go to my pubs.

We don’t have many rules, if you are polite, kind and keep your attention fixed on learning we’ll get along fine (especially at the start of the day: make sure you’re in the building ready for learning long before 9am rather than running down the street with your mind on other things). Right now, however, I’d like you to fix your attention on the Abbey, even if you’re still thinking about fish, look around you, look at the detail, the carving, the statues, the ancient stones and pause. This term is Remembrance and part of the meaning of this term is remembering our privilege, remembering how hard we’ve worked to get here, remembering how much others have sacrificed to get us here, remembering that this is an incredible opportunity to fulfil our ambitions and then committing to making the most of that opportunity. As you fix your attention on one spot, one detail, one tiny focus point in this incredible building, pause and remember your ambition.

Remember what you want to get from your time here. Remember what has gone into getting you here. And now make a promise to yourself, make a promise that you will keep your focus. We will teach you, we will give you the breadth and cultural capital that you’ll need, we’ll provide opportunities but you will need to do your part. You will need to work hard when the work gets hard, you will need to make time to take those opportunities when you feel that time is short, you will need to follow rules and expectations rather than challenging them – to get the most out of your time you need to keep your focus. So, make your promise, remember that spot in the Abbey you looked at, your spot, the physical reminder of that promise. We’ll be back here, and every time we are you should let that spot bring you back to that promise. That spot in the Abbey is your Yusuf, shouting out to you, reminding you to look street.