Discretionary Hours (April 2021)

This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.

A riddle with an answer – if you don’t already know which monster we’re referring to then perhaps a quote from the always-nonsensical Talking Heads will help:

You may ask yourself, "What is that beautiful house?"
You may ask yourself, "Where does that highway go to?"
And you may ask yourself, "Am I right? Am I wrong?"
And you may say to yourself, "My Gosh! What have I done?"
Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
Into the blue again, into the silent water

Or perhaps not. Sometimes the answer doesn’t lie in 1980s pop lyrics but in cool, hard calculation. There are 679 hours between now and the end of the final exam in the hall in May. 679 hours for you to direct towards the task of getting the best grades you can. Some of these 679 hours are already spoken for, over some of them you haven’t (or at least shouldn’t take) control. You’ll spend 151 hours in school and 224 hours asleep if you have any sense. 43 hours are for travelling – approximately, some of you a little less, some of you a little more. 28 hours on personal admin, showering and the like, 56 hours on household chores, 56 on eating – both of which are important. 64 hours over the four weeks is a normal homework load – doing the revision that comes from the lessons you’ve had, following your normal timetable – and this leaves 57 magical hours for you to spend on what seems good to you. 57 hours, a smidgen over two hours a day, rather less than 2 and a half days straight if you use them all at once (something I don’t recommend).

57 hours is simultaneously rather a lot, and terrifyingly little. It’s a lot because if you use it wisely you can achieve a huge amount in 57 hours. It’s little because if you fritter it away you’ll find it easily slips between your fingers. Where are these 57 hours I’ve found? Well, they’re the hour after you get home and you choose between slumping in front of the telly and memorising some quotes or formulae; they’re Thursday afternoons and Sunday mornings; they’re the fifteen minutes break between study sessions; they’re the half hour of looking for memes on TikTok. They’re the difference between a B and a C, between an A and an A*.

Whilst we were in lockdown, that other strange period when time stretched and condensed, two Year 12s wrote and delivered an assembly – if you managed to miss it then I recommend that you remedy the omission because it’s rather wonderful. It starts in Parliament square with the observation that Mahatma Gandhi is one of only two statues of non-white figures. I shall follow up that observation with a brief digression on Gandhi. Nina Martyris wrote an essay about him called “The most punctual man in India” – the full text can be found online, but I’ll read a little to you:

The watch never left his side. It was the first thing Gandhi reached for when he rose each morning, and the last thing he checked before going to bed. He consulted it frequently through the day so as never to be late for an appointment. And, at that final moment, when three bullets from an assassin’s Beretta knocked him over, his 78-year-old body slumped to the ground, and the watch also stopped. Mahatma Gandhi’s Ingersoll pocket watch, costing just a dollar, was among the handful of material possessions he owned. Since he didn’t have a pocket to carry it in, he attached the watch to his dhoti with a safety pin and a loop of khadi string. Gandhi’s legendary punctuality had a utilitarian imperative—without it he would never have been able to answer the sacks of letters and streams of visitors that demanded his attention each day. But, as with everything he valued, it had a moral imperative as well. Simply put, time was tied to his philosophy of trusteeship: the belief that just as we do not own our wealth but are trustees of it—and thus have to use it wisely—similarly, we are trustees of our time. “You may not waste a grain of rice or a scrap of paper, and similarly a minute of your time,” he wrote. “It is not ours. It belongs to the nation and we are trustees for the use of it.” Consequently, any abuse of time was unethical. “One who does less than he can is a thief,” he wrote to a friend. While this focus on punctuality may portray Gandhi as skittish and anxious, the opposite was true: a timetable allowed him to give the issue at hand his tranquil and undivided attention. Known to apologize if he was even a minute late, Gandhi was equally stringent about his personal regimen. Winding up a letter to a professor, he wrote: “I am also being reminded by Lady Watch that it is time for my walk. So I obey her and stop here.”

To make the most of your 57 hours you will need to follow Gandhi’s example and be a trustee of your time. Give yourself a timetable – put in it things that give you joy: those 57 hours are not just for study – they are for friendship and relaxation too. Put in your timetable some daily exercise – let Lady Watch tell you when it is time for your walk, and obey her. Make sure that your time is spent rather than frittered. Do not waste a minute of it. Be on time for all your commitments so that you don’t waste a minute of anyone else’s. Carry a book so you can read in any spare moments. When you sit down to work, sit down to work – don’t check your social media first, don’t stare into space, don’t reflect on whether Justin Bieber doing a sea shanty would be worth watching – give your studies your tranquil and undivided attention.

Your 57 hours are a treasure that time will devour – you can’t hold onto them, only spend or waste them.

Remember, these 57 hours come after your sleep – make sure you get that – they come after your chores, and meals, and washing which are dull but necessary to your continued existence – they come after schooltime and travel, and they even come after homework. I should just say something here, by the way – I’m budgeting here that you spend between 9 and 4 in school every day until that last Friday, even after the leavers’ celebrations (and you can, of course – coming into study is thoroughly encouraged) I also expect you’ll do 16 hours of homework a week: if you stay at home during study leave then you save on the travel time – two hours to add to your magical 57 – if you further squeeze your study time in order to faff then you’re stealing from yourself. One who does less than he can is a thief – and it’s future you you’re stealing from. Time it is that devours all things, and if you let your days go by, slip through your fingers as though they were water flowing underground then you may ask yourself “Where have my hours gone,” and you may say to yourself “My Gosh, what have I done?”

And remember also that these 57 hours come to an end on Friday 28st May – after that you are free to step into the blue again– there’s no more to be done – no more that effort or worry can do to change your grades. It will, in the words of Dubose Heyward, sung by Ella Fitzgerald, be “Summertime, and the living will be easy – fish will be jumping, and the cotton will be high.” You will no longer be students, but alumni – forever part of Harris Westminster – forever welcome to return to share your stories or ask advice (we’ll be asking you for contract addresses to send newsletters and emails to) – forever a piece of our history, but no longer part of our present, as we will no longer be part of yours. Those 679 hours will come to an end whether you like it or not, and when they do you’ll have enough time to record hours of Justin Bieber-inspired sea shanties, to seek out videos of jumping fish or just to enjoy lazy afternoons in the shade (finding cotton plantations may be tricky, but a regular tree will also do).

It would be unidiomatic not to offer you some advice from Taylor Swift – this piece comes not from one of her songs, but from a documentary in which she reflected on the shelf-life of a pop artist. “I’m in the spotlight right now,” she said. “But that won’t last – I’ve got 2 or 3 more years before I don’t fit the model – and so I want to use this time to work really hard.” Taylor Swift is, even more than Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich – and she looks at her life and sees an opportunity to work really hard; she sees a finite window of time in which she can make a difference, and she is determined to use it. You have a finite window in which working really hard will make a difference. You have 679 hours left in total, 57 magical discretionary hours to shape your future. Use them.