Finite Things (May 2021)

Welcome to a rather unusual Leavers’ assembly for a year-group that has had a rather unusual Harris Westminster experience. Of course, you have no idea what a usual Leavers’ assembly looks like because we didn’t have one at all last year due to Covid – and it is Covid that has made your experience here so unusual and that has made your year group so special.

Let me start this morning with a rather unusual friendship.

“Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea, and frolicked in the autumn mists in a land called Honahlee Little Jackie Paper loved that rascal Puff, and brought him strings and sealing wax and other fancy stuff. Together they would travel on a boat with billowed sail Jackie kept a lookout perched on Puff’s gigantic tail.”

This was a folk-song from the 60s, written by Peter Yarrow, based on a poem by Lenny Lipton and inspired by Ogden Nash whose Custard the Dragon was one of my favourite poems before I acquired my taste for Louis Macniece and Philip Larkin. When I was at primary school it was a favourite of the teachers and singing along to a guitar was considered a perfectly adequate substitute for an assembly. You’ll be relieved to hear that I’ve left my guitar at home.

Puff is a wonderful folk song, a fairy tale, an afternoon frozen forever in a world in which Jackie Paper and his companion enjoy their shared imagination. No matter how far they travel on their boat, no matter how many pirates they beat or princesses they rescue the whole afternoon lies ahead of them – which is as good an introduction to the mathematical idea of infinity as I could hope for. Mathematicians, you see, like to solve equations – and they don’t like equations that can’t be solved. X+3=2 you say? Well, X must be -1. X times 3 is 2? Then X must be 2/3. X times X is 2? Root 2. X times X is -1? X is i or -i. So far so good, but what about the Puff equation? If X is the amount of time left in the afternoon and we’ve spent an hour traveling in a boat with billowed sail then X-1=X. The only solution is for X to be infinity – with any finite number, if you take one away you’ll have less left.

Actually infinity isn’t just one number – it’s a whole world of infinite numbers of different sizes and the total number of infinite numbers is larger than any individual infinite number. It’s a very big world and would make the basis for a great assembly, but that will have to wait for a future occasion because today I want to think about finiteness. In our world afternoons don’t last forever.

Someone who knew this – before even the 1960s – was the Venerable Bede who described life as a sparrow flying the length of a feasting hall from one end to an open window at the other and out into the night. The feasting hall is of finite length and, though it might seem huge to the sparrow, and though some of those wing beats might be hard work, there are only a finite number of wing beats. Actually Peter Yarrow and Lenny Lipton knew this – the last verse of Puff goes like this:

“A dragon lives forever but not so little boys Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys One grey night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more And Puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar.”

And so we segue into the leavers’ aspect of the assembly: your time here has come to an end. My opportunity to regale you with the mathematics of infinity has slipped by and if I do deliver that piece then it will be for some other students, you will have flown on. I hope you’ve enjoyed your studies as much as Jackie Paper enjoyed the painted wings and giant rings of his imagination – I hope that keeping your wings beating as you’ve flown though the feasting hall hasn’t been too hard.

You are now off to the next thing – a thing that will seem endless but inevitably be finite. I hope that if you’ve learned anything at Harris Westminster it is the value of time – I hope you’ve learned not to waste those 168 hours you get each week. It is in some ways a scary thought – in your lifetime you will only read a finite number of books (as you can imagine, I think it should be a large finite number); you will only say “I love you” a finite number of times (and I would heartily encourage you to say it more frequently to your friends and family in the light of that realisation); you will only have a finite number of Sunday Mornings – you’ll be lucky if it’s 5000 and there’s nothing you can do to make it more (except eat healthily and give up smoking), you just have to use the ones you have. When we were in the Abbey together for the last time, I told you about Gandhi and his view that we are trustees of our time and should not waste a minute: today’s message is the same but from a different perspective – each hour is an opportunity to do something amazing, to build a part of your life and if you waste it you’re missing out. Sometimes you will be building towers with wonderful views that will be admired by passers-by, but sometimes you will be labouring on the foundations, hidden and glamourless. If you don’t build the foundations, however, you can’t build the towers – you can’t build at all.

At this point in the assembly it is traditional to acknowledge that our building isn’t independent – we build with others, on the work of others. Our sparrows are following the migration route beaten out for us by those who went before and we see further because we stand on the shoulders of giants. That phrase should sound familiar because I’m quoting, this time from Isaac Newton whose grave lies in the Abbey surrounded by the giants of science who followed him. Our tradition is that at this point the victorious house captain would place flowers on his memorial on our behalf but this is an unusual leavers assembly and instead of being in the nave of the Abbey we are in St Margaret’s church. Let us, then, remember that it is not just scientists that lay foundations but activists also. Our work to make the world fairer and kinder is not starting from barbarism but from a society that is freer and more equal thanks to the work of people like Oluadah Equiano, who said “I might say my sufferings were great: but when I compare my lot with that of most of my countrymen, I regard myself as a particular favourite of Heaven.” Not content with his own freedom he continued to work for the abolition of slavery and the freedom of all. He was baptised here in St Margaret’s and he is remembered with a stone on the south aisle. On behalf of us all, then, I’d like to invite George, captain of House Equiano, to place flowers at his memorial.

At this point we would normally get the Year 12s to give you a round of applause but since they are not here, I’d like to invite you to give yourselves a round of applause – look round at those you’ve shared your journey with over the last two years – they are incredible people – you are incredible people. And what will you incredible people go on to do? Incredible things, I hope. Actually, it’s more than hope, it’s expectation, knowledge even. The skills you have developed are powerful weapons: you are clever, and well read, and determined, and ambitious, and resilient; you know how to make the most of your time, to learn efficiently and effectively; you know how to make yourself interesting and how to communicate with interesting people.

You go out into the world with the tools you need to carve your own future, to build your own towers – don’t let them be limited by the expectations of others (even me – perhaps especially me: principals, like dragons, get left behind); don’t let it be limited by your own prejudices – perhaps the thirteen year-old isn’t the right version of you to guide your whole career; don’t let it be limited by a failure to build foundations – expect to do the hard labour as well as the fancy stuff; don’t let it be limited by fear – be a little bit braver, put yourself out there, take pot shots that might not come off. And what pot shots do I hope for? Well, I hope for amazing things that my mind cannot imagine or comprehend right now – I hope you’ll come and tell me that you’ve been appointed curator of the Museum of Modern Art on the Moon (that’s a real thing, by the way, …, well, sort of) – I hope you’ll come and tell me you’re responsible for reintroducing wolves to the forests of Scotland – I hope you’ll come and tell me that your start up company does something I don’t understand for a huge community of people of whom I’ve never heard.

I also hope that some of you will have jobs I do understand; I hope that some of you will go into the professions and become doctors and lawyers and build the fabric of society; I hope that some of you will venture into the world of politics and navigate that complexity to make the world better and kinder; I hope that some of you will fall in love with a niche part of your subject and become academics and make the world nerdier and more scholarly; I hope that some of you will go into business or banking and make pots of money – and, may I suggest that when you’ve got more than you can conveniently spend on Scholar Chicken (that’s surely an improvement on the Jerk variety?) that you’ll make a donation to the school so that we can continue teaching the Jackie Papers of years to come; I hope that some of you will be artists and poets and create things of startling beauty and I hope that if you do then you’ll find a way to earn enough so that you don’t have to live in a garret unless you really want to; but I hope that the brightest and best of you become teachers and pass on your brilliance to the next generation – and I hope that when you do you’ll give me a call and consider doing your teaching here.

As for me, what will I remember of you? How will the 2019 cohort stick in my mind? Lots of little things, and one big one: Covid. I’ll remember that it was with you that I, and the school, came through the pandemic. I’ll remember being scared, I’ll remember being more vulnerable with you than I have with any other year group since 2014. And I’ll remember your support and your kindness. I’ll remember the emails you sent during lockdown (often starting “I’m sorry to bother you” and not realising how much it unbothered me, how much it brightened my day to hear that one of you was ok, and feeling the same kind of things I was but looking at them a little differently). I’ll remember our Art Club, I’ll remember my feeble efforts and your magnificent responses. I’ll remember our singalong and spending Fridays trying to keep up with all of the suggestions flowing in. On which note, I think I should say that I hope that some of you become DJs – your taste in music is wonderful and it’s a much harder job than I’d realised. I’ll remember the Steel House showdown and the students who always seemed to score more than I did. I’ll remember coming back to school in June and being so delighted to see you all again and struggling so badly to remember your names when you had changed so much and were wearing masks – I’m sorry for each time I got any of them wrong. I’ll remember the happy few of you who came to my rather bizarre CP of reading through Orlando online. It was one of the strangest things we’ve attempted at Harris Westminster and I was glad of your company.

And how would I like you to remember me? A strange tie, a passion for mathematics, a thirst for reading, and perhaps a line of poetry? Perhaps I’d like you to remember a couple of assemblies: do you remember the first one we had together in Westminster Abbey? I told you of my adventures in surfing and I called upon you to “Look Street”, to fix your gaze on the goal – well you’ve reached that goal now, or you will have at the end of next week. Take a rest in the sunshine and then get back on your board, paddle back through the surf and set yourself a new target – remembering to look street or you’ll tumble. And then, from an assembly delivered in lockdown, an appropriate verse of poetry from that great Bengali poet, Tagore. It seems even more appropriate now than it did in November:

"To the guests that must go bid God's speed and brush away all traces of their steps. Take to your bosom with a smile what is easy and simple and near. To-day is the festival of phantoms that know not when they die. Let your laughter be but a meaning- less mirth like twinkles of light on the ripples. Let your life lightly dance on the edges of Time like dew on the tip of a leaf. Strike in chords from your harp fitful momentary rhythms."