Taking out the TCP (April 2024)

I have said to you before that the greatest film in the history of human endeavour is The Princess Bride and, whilst I’m indisputably correct on this matter, I’m sure that some of you will have gone away to watch the piece and said to yourselves “What this film could do with is more songs … and Aretha Franklin being cool in carpet slippers.” To you, I commend The Blues Brothers – a brilliant piece of madcap comedy with a great script, fantastic lead actors, a succession of absolutely banging tunes, and the best collection of cameos I know, culminating in Aretha Franklin singing “Think” and being jaw-droppingly cool despite being dressed in a stained waitress uniform, a cardigan and those aforementioned slippers.

Aretha Franklin was born in 1942 in Memphis Tennessee, a city known for the blues, for Elvis’ home Graceland, for the assassination of Martin Luther King, as the birthplace of Morgan Freeman, and for Aretha Franklin. Her father was a Baptist minister and she grew up singing in gospel choirs. At the age of 18 she moved to New York City hoping to make a career in music, which she duly did, gaining the title Queen of Soul for songs such as Think, I Say a Little Prayer and I Knew You Were Waiting, a duet with George Michael – whose story is for a whole different assembly. She is also known for her cover of an Otis Redding song, Respect.

In Aretha’s version of this (Otis’ lyrics are significantly different), we hear a strong woman in a relationship with a man giving and expecting respect. I find this interesting in terms of the relationships in Franklin’s life: her parents’ marriage broke down as a result of her father’s infidelity; she had her first baby at the age of 12 and her second at 15; she got married at 18 (not to the father of her first two sons), suffered domestic abuse and got divorced; she married again and divorced again. Relationships are hard – and we can never understand what goes on between two other people – but respect is important, and that means not being unfaithful, and it means not controlling or abusing your partner. But this isn’t an assembly on how to conduct your lovelives and so we move on. “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.” sings Aretha, “Take out the TCP” which makes little sense, surely, if you do that you’re left with R.E.S.E. which doesn’t mean anything at all – and there’s no use turning to Aretha for elucidation because all she has to say is “sock it to me sock it to me sock it to me sock it to me.” You could, instead, look up these lyrics and recognise that I’ve acquired a mondegreen – although you might have to look up the meaning of the word mondegreen first. Unfortunately, I have no time today either to explain what a mondegreen is or to correct my own: that is also a whole other assembly.

Respect, though, I do want to focus on – and self-respect – and self-confidence – which links back to the theme of this term. How can confidence help us, how can we build confidence? One source of confidence is home, by which I mean (for this purpose) a place where we feel safe, secure, loved. This is important because, although Aretha Franklin is the coolest person in the room whatever she’s wearing, most of us have to take off our carpet slippers, dress up, put on our game faces, and steel ourselves to face the world. Home is somewhere you can be, just you – and if some of you aren’t singing very quietly inside your head “I’m just Ken” then Ryan Gosling still has work to do. Home is lovely for many reasons but the particular one I want to focus on today is that the people you’re yourself with can tell you when you’re wrong in a way that nobody else can: my daughters can point out my dreadful sock choices in a way that would be simply rude if you did it (and I don’t want to hear that they should work harder at their job). And we all need feedback on when we’re getting things wrong, and so we all need places we’re confident and secure enough to take that feedback.

The trouble with families, though, is that you don’t get to choose who’s in them – you’re landed with your parents and siblings, my poor daughters are landed with me – and some families are not great: I mentioned Aretha Franklin’s first marriage as an example. Over the next decade or so, you are going to be thinking about moving out of your parents’ family home and setting up your own and making the only decision you can make about who is in your family: you don’t get to choose your children either, but you do get to choose your partner and I’d encourage you to pick someone who makes you feel confident, feel safe, someone who respects you for and allows you to be yourself – and doesn’t condemn you to a life of blond fragility, sorry, I’ve got that in my head now. This isn’t an assembly on how to conduct your lovelives, but it is one in which self-respect is important. Self respect means recognising that you have value in yourself, that you don’t get it from someone else’s approval, that you don’t need to compromise, put up with someone who treats you badly to avoid being on your own.

And that applies in friendships at least as much as romances – and I’ve been there, I had a friend in sixth form who would fairly routinely hit me, but who I couldn’t walk away from because to do so would leave me lunching alone. And I now think I was wrong and wish I could tell sixteen year old me that there are friendships you’re better off without – and my sister is now rolling her eyes theatrically because she did tell me, repeatedly. I’m fortunate since to have found good friends – friends who help me be a better version of me. Listen to friends and family who care about you – don’t buy your self-respect from those who don’t deserve your time.

Because I think that self-respect that’s dependent on how others see us is fragile, whether or not it’s blond and fragile self-respect can’t take criticism, can’t see beyond its own wants and needs – and that undermines the respect that we give each other in community. And that’s the real thing I want to think about today. What does respect mean here – what does it mean for me to respect you – what does it mean for you to respect me? Is it important? Well, if I might take that last question first, if it’s important for enough Aretha to write an entire song about then it’s important. I’ve also mentioned her song Think – advice that I intend to follow now and which I recommend to you both specifically and generally.

The key point we need to acknowledge in our thinking is that there is a difference between a teacher in a school and a student. It is not a difference in value – that comes from our humanity and we share that – it’s a difference in role, because you’re here to learn, here to get an education – and that can’t happen without teachers to explain things – and that can’t happen unless you let them be in charge. So I see school as a bit of a bargain – you let us tell you what to do and in exchange we tell you the things we’ve learned from study and experience. And that affects, a bit, the way that we show each other respect. I think I show you respect by showing up on time, by preparing lessons – and assemblies, it would be disrespectful if I were to stand here burbling aimlessly, and by making decisions that help you be ready for the post-18 world. I think you show respect by showing up on time, by being ready for lessons – doing your homework, for instance, and by doing what I, and other teachers, ask you without demanding to know the reason. And I think we show you respect by not asking you to do things unless there is a reason. Aretha sings, in “Think”, “There ain't nothing you could ask I could answer you but I won't” – and I’m happy to make the same promise, to answer your questions, but with the proviso that you ask not in response to an instruction to do something, but after you’ve done what you’ve been asked – that you show me respect by doing what I tell you before you ask why, and I show you respect by explaining as well as I can afterwards. Circling back to the idea of shared humanity, this is why I think it’s an error when people say “respect has to be earned” – I think each one of us is worthy of respect, that insisting that somebody prove themselves before you respect them shows a lack of self-respect, shows you don’t have the self-confidence to give without taking, is an excuse for disrespecting the humanity of others. And it’s confidence term, so take off those carpet slippers, put on a big smile, push your shoulders back and do your bit to make the people around you feel better about themselves – be someone who builds a sense of home rather than one who breaks it down.

I’m going to finish with another pop song about respect, this time from Erasure, a synth-pop duo from 1980s London, who begin with the goal “I try to discover a little something to make me sweeter”, and after a bit of nonsense to do with their romantic obsession (which you can follow up in your own time if you’re so inclined – this is not an assembly on how to conduct your lovelives) say “I’ll be forever blue that you give me no reason why you make me work so hard, that you gimme no, that you gimme no, that you gimme no, that you gimme no,” the word they don’t quite get to being, of course, respect. The reason we work so hard – all of us – is so that you learn things, so that you get an education. That’s the point of everything we do here, and the respect we give each other is at the heart of that, it enables the learning, builds our community into a home where we can be ourselves, take criticism, become better versions of ourselves, develop confidence. It’s a little something to make our time together sweeter.

R.E.S.P.E.C.T – take out the TCP.


1. The claim of the Princess Bride to be the best film of all time can be found, for example, in Miserable Scholarship.

2. Aretha Franklin (like Erasure, Ryan Gosling and George Michael) has not previously appeared in an assembly, but perhaps should have soundtracked World of Difference

3. Graceland has previously been mentioned in Art and Artifice as part of a Paul Simon tribute and in Spinning Pebbles we learned that Dolly Parton was born in the same state as Aretha Franklin (but the opposite end).

3. A mondegreen is a mishearing of a lyric, taken from "Lady Mondegreen", a mishearing of "laid him on the green", from the traditional ballad, The Bonnie Earl of Moray.
4. Aretha actually sings "take care of TCB" - Take Care of Business rather than trichlorophenylmethyliodosalicyl (the Otis Redding original being very explicitly about the sexual aspect of romantic relationships).