Running Out of Time (September 2023)

This is my first assembly with you this year – so welcome back. Today I have for you a marvellous piece of musical theatre – which I shall be quoting, rather than acting out (I’m not sure if this is reassuring or disappointing – either way I shan’t be singing or dancing). I also have an intimately entwined piece of American History from which I shall be taking an important lesson that I hope you will take to heart and act on.

First, though, a question – a misquote, in fact, from that piece of musical theatre.

Why don’t you write like you’re running out of time?

Sixth Form is 22 months – 12 of those have gone, you’re more than half way there.

Why don’t you write like you’re running out of time?

Sixth Form is 17,000 hours – you have less than 8,000 left.

Why don’t you write like you’re running out of time?

Every minute is sixty seconds less to use – is it sixty seconds distance run, sixty seconds closer to your goal?

WHY don’t you write like you’re running out of time?

Let me take a breath and calm down – I’m not here to make you anxious. 7700 hours is a lot of hours, you can fit in a huge amount of work without cutting into your sleep. You might, however, think about cutting into your socialisation time – not to cut it out completely, you need to spend time with friends, time taking joy in the world, but to weigh that up against time spent on your studies. You should certainly cut into your faffing time – time spent scrolling the internet, snapping chats, playing computer games, kicking around doing nothing. 7700 hours is a lot of hours, but if you don’t put some effort into using them constructively they’ll slip past, soon enough you’ll find yourself walking out of your last exam, handing in your last piece of coursework, unable to do anything to improve your grades any more. There’ll be time for Tiktok then.

Another question for you, another, lightly edited, line from that musical:

“How does an orphan, son of a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence impoverished in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”

It’s the opening line – it’s the question at the centre of the whole musical – and without the specifics or flowery language it’s the question at the centre of each of our lives: how does someone like me, like you, like us become the kind of person we want to be? I’d be happy to take hero and scholar – your ambitions might be different, but the question is the same: how do you get there from here.

Who is this impoverished orphan whose story I’m telling? I’m sure some of you will have recognised some of the hints, but for those that haven’t, the answer comes a little later in the opening song: “They sent him to the mainland, said get your education, don’t forget from whence you came, and the world is gonna know your name. What’s your name man? Alexander Hamilton – my name is Alexander Hamilton. And there’s a million things I haven’t done, but just you wait, just you wait.”

The musical is Hamilton by Lin Manuel Miranda who wrote the music, lyrics and book (the three components of a musical – often by three different people, to do them all is noteworthy). If you’ve not seen it then I recommend that you do – there’s a film version that is easy to get your hands on. Its music mixes traditional show-tunes with hip hop, R&B, pop and soul – it’s wonderfully musically eclectic – and the casting has caused some controversy with the prevalence of white characters among the founding fathers balanced by the choice of non-white actors to play them. I quite like it – although I’m not sure I would have noticed if it hadn’t been pointed out. Miranda describes it as America then, as told by America now. If you have seen it then you’ll know quite a lot about Alexander Hamilton’s life – I hope you’ll excuse a brief recap for those who’ve not yet had that pleasure.

Alexander Hamilton was born in the island of Nevis – if you were paying attention last winter and have good memories you will recall me telling you about Joan Armatrading, born in Kitts – the other half of the smallest country in the western hemisphere. It wasn’t an independent country in 1755, though – it was a small British colony and Naval base (to be fair, this was still the case in 1950 when Armatrading was born – gaining independence only in 1983). He was quite a remarkable person who seized every opportunity for education he could get and impressed the local businessmen so much that they sent him to college in New York. He trained as a lawyer, got involved in the American revolution where he was George Washington’s lieutenant and let troops at the final battle of Yorktown. He then returned to New York, passed for the bar and was appointed to Congress to represent his adopted state.

How did he do that? Well, the answer comes in that opening number – “He’s the ten-dollar founding father without a father, he got a lot father by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter,” and an example comes later on in life – the US Constitution was written but was imperfect and was not properly understood so Hamilton and two others (John Jay and James Madison) agreed to write 25 essays between them to defend the document. In the end, Jay wrote 5, Madison 29 and Hamilton 51 – in total 85, more than half of which were by our hero and scholar. I find this piece of American History fascinating – scholars, fresh from fighting for independence, tussling with words to tie thirteen separate colonies into one strong and stable nation – and I love that they did this by writing essays to argue their points. In the musical, this period is marked by a song called Non Stop. “Why do you write like you’re running out of time, write day and night like you’re running out of time, everyday you fight like you’re running out of time. Are you running out of time?” As a result of his work, George Washington made Hamilton the first Secretary of the Treasury, from which position he masterminded a compromise that created the financial foundations of the USA. America would not be the same without him.

But what about you? Do I want you to work night and day like you’re running out of time – well, no – I want you to live healthy, ambitious, balanced lives and I shall pause a moment to quote the lines of Hamilton’s wife, who, in the musical, says to him “Look around, look around, look at where you are, look at where you started, look at how lucky we are to be alive right now.” So do that. Look around – not just physically, in this room, but run your mind over your notes, your exam papers, your essays, your problem sets, your knowledge and understanding. Look at where you are, look at where you started, take a moment to recognise how far you’ve come – and think about where you’d like to go -think about your ambitions, the opportunities that come to you in the  greatest city in the world, think about what a privilege it is to be alive right now, right here.

And in this moment of thinking and reflecting, be honest with yourself – are you working a lot harder – are you a self-starter – are you, not writing like you’re running out of time, but studying like there are 7,700 hours left of your school career. If you are then amazing – well done – please let us help you – please take our advice when we say to stop for a moment and look around, get some rest. If you’re not then you’re normal – don’t panic – but you also need to make a change. So make a commitment to yourself – what are you going to cut out from your weekly routine to make space for some more study – be a self-starter, work a little harder – and do it.

Hamilton was amazing – hero, scholar, politician, economist, immigrant, he did end up doing a million things. One fact I found out writing this assembly - that isn’t in the musical and therefore I didn’t know – is that he helped to draft Constitution of Haiti after supporting the revolution there. The Haitian revolution is a fascinating piece of history that maybe I’ll pick up in another assembly – or maybe you could investigate yourself and read about the remarkable Toussaint Loverture – but I’m afraid I couldn’t fit it into today’s assembly, appropriately enough I’m running out of time.

To tie up the loose threads, I need to give you a line from Joan Armatrading – and I rather like this one, from her song Never is too Late: “Don’t be afraid: we all need someone who is on our side. Some things must not wait.” We, Harris Clapham Sixth Form, are on your side – don’t be afraid – but also don’t put off getting this right: some things must not wait. Ask for help if you need it, but don’t squander your hours.

And, finally, I misquoted a fragment of poetry earlier and it would be a bit much to leave without signposting you to the whole thing. The poem is by Rudyard Kipling, the title is “If”, and the key line is “If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run, yours is the earth and everything that’s in it.” Go and use your time before it runs out.



1. Another assembly that deals with that sense of running out of Time

2. This assembly refers to Joan Armatrading's appearance in Start Here

3. Toussaint L'Ouverture also gets a tangential reference in A Contested Space