A Bend in the Road (February 2024)

This is the second attempt at writing this assembly. I got three-quarters of the way through my first go and had to stop because I was making myself cry and I didn’t want to have you all in tears. You see, I wanted to write about Tracy Chapman – she was in the news at the weekend because she’d performed at the Grammys and her song Fast Car has had even more success recently than it did first time round in 1988. In what I hope you will recognise as a signature Mr Handscombe move, I had made a really nice link between Chapman and Thomas Edison, inventor of what became the gramophone, on the basis that they were both born in Ohio.

The trouble is that Fast Car is a really depressing song. It’s musical genius, both beautiful and clever, but it makes me sad to listen to it – and, it turns out, just as sad to write out the lyrics and talk about it. In retrospect, using this to segue into a paragraph on songs that make me cry was a mistake that should have been easy to avoid.

I’d hoped to contrast this with Tracy Chapman’s personal story which is one that demonstrates the power of hard work, good fortune and education – which is a message that I feel applies well to you and your current circumstances – but it wasn’t enough, there wasn’t enough hope to offset the despair I was feeling, so I started again – lost in the pop music of 1988 and searching for hope.

If you do ever find yourself in this predicament then I recommend a band called Munchener Freiheit who are a German group whose name is taken from a square in Munich named after a very short-lived radio station which existed when an anti-Nazi resistance group took over two radio towers in 1945. They have released 19 studio albums, four of which have gone gold, but their songs are mostly in German and in the English speaking world they are a one-hit wonder due to their number 14 hit from 1988 called keeping the dream alive.

The hopes we had
Were much too high
Way out of reach but we had to try
The game will never be over
Because we’re keeping the dream alive.

It's not the happiest lyric ever written, but it’s good for when you’re seeking hope perhaps because of that – it finds you in your search rather than assuming that you can get yourself out of whatever hole you’re in (and remember, I was stuck 36 years ago with a tune that sent me into floods of tears) – it’s a song that fits our common experience: of aiming high and not getting our wish, of missing our ambitious goals, of being disappointed.

Maybe, with Freiheit to lean on, I can tell you a little bit about Fast Car without breaking down. Keep your fingers crossed for me. It’s a song about a woman and two men in her life. The first is her father who is sick – too sick for her mother who leaves him, leaving the singer to quit school and take care of him. The second is her lover who has a fast car and with whom she runs away to start a new life – nothing too ambitious, living in a shelter and working at a checkout, but one with hope. And the reason it makes me cry is that she gets let down – she does her part, gets a job, but her bloke is useless, spends the money she earns on beer and leaves her to look after their children and so the song ends with her wondering if she can run away again, run far enough to get away from this life.

I’d always hoped for better, thought maybe together you and me’d find it.
I got no plans, I ain’t going nowhere, take your fast car and keep on driving.

What do Freiheit have to say to this woman then? I think they sympathise – the hopes they had were much too high (it might not have seemed that way at the time – they might have seemed completely reasonably, but sometimes things don’t work out the way you want them to), way out of reach but we had to try. They sympathise, but they have something to offer too – the game will never be over, there is still hope, you’re not stuck, because we’re keeping the dream alive.

The singer is clearly rather brilliant with skills and determination and the game of life is not over – there are still opportunities but you need to have hope and you need to take chances and you need to keep trying – which can be hard when life has kicked you in the head. There are new hopes, maybe they’re much too high as well, and way out of reach, but you have to try.

And now I’d like to lead you into a rather wonderful piece of prose writing – it’s a book called “Anne of Green Gables” and it’s a 19th century children’s book that inspired a Netflix series you might have come across – Anne with an E? The writing is amazing and you should read it just to improve the way you use words, but the reason that I bring it up is that Anne has a dream, has hopes of going to university, but being an orphan in 19th century Canada has no way to afford it except by winning a scholarship which she works her socks off to get. The high point is when she wins it and sees her future spreading out in front of her but this vision is dashed when her adopted father, Matthew, dies, leaving his sister (her adopted mother, it’s complicated), Marilla, with large debts, failing eyesight and nobody to work the farm. The only thing Anne can do is give up the scholarship, give up on that future, get a job and support the family.

But I promised you hope rather than more tears, and I’ve told you this because that chapter is called “A Bend in the Road” – Anne thought her road led straight ahead to success at university and some kind of glory and now it didn’t, but the game is not over – she’s still the brilliant young woman who won the scholarship and the world is still out there, it’s just that the road is taking a winding route. It takes two more books, but she does get to University and finds that’s triumph is no more of an ending than disaster was, the road, and the game go on, but you’ll have to read for yourself to find out what she gets up to.

You are in a very bendy part of your road and two things are simultaneously and almost contradictorily true.

  • The decisions you make now will have a big impact on your future.
  • No matter what decisions you make, you might not get the future you’re planning for.

I can’t promise you that all you need to do is to work hard and it will all be fine – perhaps it won’t – perhaps your circumstances will change – perhaps someone will let you down – perhaps your hopes are just set a bit too high. But I can tell you that you have to try – and the reason is that the game will not be over this summer – you will go into the autumn, and into next year, and maybe at some point in 2060 you’ll be trying to pull wisdom rather than tears from the pop music of this year. And the reason you have to try is that the effort you make, the work you do, the character and knowledge and skills that you build will shape who you are, who it is that goes into the opportunities and challenges of this autumn – and the most important thing is not where you go or what you do, but who you are when you are going and doing.

We call this commitment term – and I’m asking for a lot of commitment next week, a lot of hard work, reading, resting, review, and not so much of the messing about on Tik Tok – but I’m not asking for commitment to me, or to school, or to exams – I’m asking for you to be committed to yourself, to your too-high hopes and to keeping that dream alive.


1. The same song by Freiheit inspired The Hopes We Had

2. Anne of Green Gables inspired Kindred Spirits

3. The metaphor of a road for the life of academic study is a common one and can be found in Two Roads Diverged and Metaphorical Violin