Kennedy, Gorman and Donne (February 2024)

Last Wednesday’s assembly concluded with a fragment of poetry as Ms Heuston exhorted you to think of yourself as part of a community: "No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main." She might equally have quoted John F Kennedy whose inaugural address as US President on January 20th 1961, delivered outside, without a coat, in temperatures several degrees below freezing, included this passage “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation – born this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed. And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

It was a remarkable inauguration – the youngest President ever, the first (as he hints) born in the 20th century, the first Catholic – the beginning of a new decade, of a time of hope. You are similarly a new generation – born this century – and I wonder what trials have tempered you, what difficulties will discipline you in the years ahead. I hope that you are also proud of your ancient heritage and are unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of human rights and so I echo that challenge – ask not what your community can do for you, but what you can do for your community.

As well as Kennedy’s speech, his inauguration is remembered for Robert Frost’s reading of his poem The Gift Outright. You’re unlikely to know that piece but might, I hope, have come across Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening or The Road Not Taken, both of which are favourites of mine and heartily recommended. Three more presidents have chosen to have poems read at their inauguration: Bill Clinton, Barak Obama and Joe Biden – all Democrats, I notice – I leave it to the politics students and Ms Jackson to ruminate on whether or not this is significant.

Joe Biden’s inauguration you might remember from four years ago, and that poem: The Hill we Climb by Amanda Gorman – parts of which may have been read to you in assemblies at the time, but I’m not going to let that deter me from reading these lines “Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true: that even as we grieved, we grew. That even as we hurt, we hoped, that even as we tired we tried, that we’ll forever be tied together victorious.”

And this leads me back to the idea of community and to the first poem and to the poet John Donne, which is fortunate, because that’s where the point of this assembly lies – but there’s a detour I can’t resist – a road not taken that I’ve got to take because it makes all the difference. The Hill we Climb is a remarkable piece of hope, of delight that  (and I quote) “a skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming a president, only to find herself reciting for one” – it contrasts with the inauguration sixty years earlier when our young, freedom-loving hero of a President told Sammy Davis Jr (who was a popular black TV star and singer) not to come to a pre-inauguration ball because his upcoming marriage to a white woman was too controversial and would have been illegal in 23 states. Kennedy was breaking down barriers, but there were still some big ones standing – and there still are, because The Hill we Climb has been put on a restricted list in Florida for extremism because of the line – and listen carefully – “we’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace and the norms and notions of what just is isn’t always justice”.

The slow undoing of human rights continues to threaten us – and perhaps gives me a link back to John Donne whose biography by Katherine Rundell I was given at Christmas and have very much enjoyed. He was born a Catholic, like Gorman, like Kennedy, but unlike them, in Donne’s time there was active persecution of that faith – his uncle was gruesomely executed. Donne converted to Protestantism (there really weren’t many choices) and eventually became a clergyman and writer of metaphysical poetry (such as we started with). In between he was the author of some wonderful, and surprisingly raunchy, love poetry, including a piece called Love’s Growth which contains the following, mathematically, and idiomatically, appropriate, couplet “Methinks I lied all winter when I swore, my love was infinite if spring makes it more.”

Well, finally, our poetry has intersected with our lives here because outside we see the first glimmerings of spring: daffodils can be bought from Tesco, magnolia trees are beginning to flower, and the evenings are becoming rapidly lighter. The time has come to look up, look around, to see where you’ve come from and look where you’re going to. The time has also come to increase the amount of work you’ve been doing – to admit that you’ve been lying to yourselves all winter when you swore you were doing the maximum possible and exert yourselves now so that spring makes it more. It’s the end of February. By the end of June you’ll be done and your grades will depend, to large extent, on the amount of work you’ve squeezed into those four months.

So. Let’s think about those four months. That’s seventeen weeks. Each week has you in school from 8.45 to 3.40 and has 400 minutes of study time structured into it. Or does it? Are you here at 8.45 every day – or do you show up at break time one day, do you trundle in late on another, do you let some of those minutes evaporate around you? Let spring make your efforts more by not just taking those 400, but adding to them. If you arrive at school at 8.15 and go to the library for an hour at end of the day three times a week then your 400 minutes becomes 600. Add to that six hours of study out of the thirty two you have each weekend and another three hours at home during the week and you have 19 hours each week. 323 hours in total to devote to your studies – over 100 for each subject on top of your lessons.

And how will you spend those 100 hours? Not, I hope, staring at your books whilst distracted by Snaptok and Whatsgram, not flicking through your favourites to find the perfect soundtrack for your studies. Far better is to make a list of the things you need to memorise, or a set of flash cards, and test yourself on them, cover them up and see how much you can recite or write out. Then find a past paper and work through it under timed conditions – if you want you can give yourself 20% extra time in March, 10% in April, nothing in  May and be ready for when the exams come. When you’ve completed it, mark it using the mark scheme – identify where you lost marks, make flash cards of the things you needed to remember but didn’t, practice the part that you found hardest. You’ll get tired, but if you can say that even as you tired you tried then you’ll be tied together victorious when August comes.

And tied together is important – you’re facing four tough months and you want to have a strong support team on your side. Value your friends and forgive them when they snap or snarl as you hope they’ll forgive you when you’re too exhausted to be diplomatic. Cherish your family and recognise what they’re doing to make your life easier – don’t resent the last few months of living under your parents’ rules. And don’t bridle under your teachers’ instructions – we’re here to help you – we know what sixth form is like: we’ve been there, done that, got both the T-shirt and the qualifications to prove it. If we tell you to get off to the library and make the most of your 323 hours then don’t saunter, taking as long as you can; don’t take a detour, don’t argue or complain – just get on with it, just make the most of what you’ve got.

Your community is there for you now, to keep you going, to support and admonish because if you are asking yourself what you can do for your community, what you can do to stand against the slow undoing of human rights, then the starting point is equipping yourself as well as possible for what you might face, getting the best qualifications you can. And then you can claim the promise of the last lines of Amanda Gorman’s poem:

"When day comes we step out of the shade
Aflame and unafraid,
The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
If only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it."


1: The Road not Travelled is a footnote to this assembly, but is the main focus of Two Roads Diverged.

2: The keenest of listeners will note an allusion to Hamilton in the lines of looking up and around - an allusion that is explored more deeply in Running out of Time

3: There is no record of previous assemblies referencing John Donne or Amanda Gorman - it's good to have remedied that omission.