Humanity (November 2022)

Today’s assembly is on the theme of humanity, and bounces around with some local history, an ancient poet, some advice on success and the occasional song lyric. Let’s start with one from what is probably Iceland’s least obscure singer songwriter, Bjork. She said “If you ever get close to a human and human behaviour, be ready, be ready to get confused. There’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic to human behaviour.” I like to think of myself as human, and also fairly logical, but I think Bjork is expressing something that we can all feel: have you ever thrown your hands in the air and said “I just don’t get people?” I know I have, and I’m pretty sure I’ve driven others to do the same.

I want, today, to think a little about humanity and what it means to live in a world in which we recognise each other’s humanity even if sometimes it makes us confused. And I want to start with a little piece of humanity on the Clapham Sixth Form gate. Every morning each of you come through that gate, and every morning for about half an hour one of the staff, sometimes me, stands on the gate to hold it open and say hello. Holding it open is purely functional – it saves you a bit of time pressing the buzzer and saves reception the hassle of buzzing you in. Saying hello is part of humanity – it’s the start of a conversation and that conversation is, or should be, a recognition of the humanity in us all. I should say hello in a way that makes you feel human – and you should respond in a way that makes me feel human.

To return to those song lyrics, the Killers and their front man, Brandon Flowers, asked “Are we human, or are we dancer?” a question that I’ve never really understood, but perhaps they were obliquely referring to the musical Wicked, in which Fiyero sings “The trouble with schools is they always try to teach the wrong lessons. Believe me, I’ve been kicked out of enough of them to know. They want you to become less callow, less shallow, but I say, why invite stress in? Stop studying strife and learn to live the unexamined life.”

Fiyero describes his philosophy as dancing through life, avoiding stress and responsibility, and I’m going to let this sit in opposition to a kind of humanity because although I don’t think that scholarship, success at school, hard work and effort are what make us human – I don’t say hello to you because you’ve done your homework, but because I’m interested in and value who you are – although it’s not all about what you do, I do think that our acts are part of our humanity - that we can and should learn – that we are able to explore those depths, to engage with each other and think of each other rather than simply the joys of the next party, the next dance, the next step. And note, I’m not saying we shouldn’t relish those joys – you may have noticed my delight in musical theatre and I encourage you to take delight, to make time for at least one thing each week simply because it brings you joy. Are we human or are we dancer? Both, I hope. Brandon Flowers – I reject your dichotomy – we are able to work hard for our futures and to take joy in the ephemeral.

I do take joy in the ephemeral - a joy I was able to indulge while perusing the website of the Black Cultural Archives (which are just a short walk from here, by Brixton station). They have a number of headings under which their collection is organised and one of these is Ephemera. This immediately drew my eye and I was struck by one artefact they have. It’s an order of service for a funeral – a couple of pages of folded paper with a photograph of a woman on the front and the words “In Loving Memory. Mrs Doris Morris. 7th June 1921 to 3rd May 2002”. There’s something very human in the survival of this scrap of paper, twenty years old. It has been kept, treasured, looked after. I imagine it has gone into a box of keepsakes – I have a number of such boxes, filled over the years with things that have no real purpose but are too precious to throw out. You wouldn’t throw out Doris Morris, so you can’t throw out this memory of her either. To guard the ephemeral is to be human, to see humanity – and we don’t need logic to do that.

Funerals are a curiously human thing – our need to say goodbye and mourn and remember has been around as long as people have. There’s a poem I studied at GCSE by a Roman poet called Catullus that talks about this – it’s called Ave atque Vale – Hail and Farewell and, in translation, it goes like this:

Having been carried through many nations and over many seas,
I arrive, brother, for these wretched funeral rites
So that I might present you with the last tribute of death
And speak in vain to silent ash
Since fortune has taken you, yourself away from me.
Alas, poor brother, unfairly taken away from me,
Now in the meantime, nevertheless, these things which in the ancient custom of ancestors
Are handed over as a sad tribute to the rites,
Receive, dripping much with brotherly weeping.
And forever, brother, hail and farewell.

Catullus has travelled to where his brother died, in order to take part in the wretched funeral rites and to speak in vain to silent ash. Well Bjork might say that there’s definitely, definitely, definitely no logic to human behaviour, but I find it reassuring that this illogical behaviour is common to us all and always has been – it’s part of what makes us who we are.

Stepping back a paragraph, I wonder if the name Doris Morris means anything to you – I know that Morris is a familiar surname to at least a quarter of you and, indeed, Doris Morris is Olive Morris’ mother. Olive Morris is, like the founder of the Black Cultural Archives (Len Garrison), honoured on Brixton’s local currency – the Brixton pound. I’ve not come across this in real life (I tend to hurry through Brixton on my way to the tube station to get home rather than stopping to do shopping) and I’m interested to know if any of you have experience of using the Brixton pound – perhaps a conversation to extend the “hello” on the gate into something more meaningful.

As well as my tube station, the Black Cultural Archives and opportunities to use notes that honour one of our house heroes, Brixton has Lambeth Town Hall – motto Spectemur Agendo – let us be judged by our acts. Which brings us back to human behaviour – and Bjork tells us that we should be ready to be confused. We want to be judged by our acts – rather than our parents, or our wealth, or our appearance. The Lambeth motto is a good one, but it does rather put an emphasis on our behaviour. Spectemur Agendo – let us be judged by our acts – is a call for fairness – a demand to wipe the slate clean of injustice and to give everyone the same opportunity. If we want a fair world, free of privilege and prejudice, then we have to be ready to be judged on our acts rather than our excuses. Take the qualifications you’re working on right now – at the end of Year 13 you will get grades, you will be judged, and your grades will, to a large extent be given on the basis of your acts. The work you do now will determine how you are judged. The time you squander now will determine how you are judged. And so – some advice on how to make your acts of scholarship something you’d be proud to be judged on – if you only come to assembly for the advice then this is the two minutes to prick your ears up and listen:

1) Do your best – if you could improve your work before you submit it then do that – don’t work to satisfy your teachers, work to make 22 year old you proud of what the 17 year old you did.
2) But don’t be perfectionist – I’m not saying stay up until past midnight worrying away at that essay. We say 5 hours per subject per week – you can use that as a limit as well as a minimum.
3) Get feedback – it’s the most precious resource you have. If you submit something worthwhile and you get told how to make it better then swallow your pride and have a go at doing that – you’re not meant to be perfect, perfection is inhuman. I’ve seen some great work in the responses you’ve done this half term – keep it up! By the way, this means submitting to deadlines – even if the work isn’t quite ready it’s better to get feedback on what you’ve done than to leave it unmarked.
4) Cut down on wasted time – my top tip here is that you should delete all but one of the social media apps on your phone and mute notifications from the last one, any steps you take in that direction will help you.
5) Sleep properly – don’t nap when you get home or you won’t be tired in the evening. Rather, turn your screens off at 9pm, read for an hour, go to sleep at 10, wake up at 6. You can tinker with this regime, but don’t stray too far.

And so, there’s my advice: do your best, but don’t be perfectionist, get and use feedback, cut down on wasted time and sleep properly. Those are the logical steps to take – those are the actions on which you’ll be judged – that’s how to be less shallow, less callow – and I can promise that I will be a little confused if you don’t. But, and this is important, we both know there’s no logic to human behaviour, both know we’re dancers as well as scholars and our recognition of each other’s humanity, our treatment of each other, that hello at the gate, are all independent of that judgment. Bjork is right – human behaviour is confusing.