Look Deeper, See More (September 2022)

At the end of last year, we heard the poem Ithaka by C P Cavafy read for us at the Celebration Prizegiving evening – it’s a poem about what your attitude should be to the twists and turns of life and the key lines are

“Don’t hurry the journey at all,
better if it lasts for years,
so that you’re old by the time you reach the island,
Wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.”

As we set off for the new academic year I’d like you to travel the Ithaka way, to enjoy the journey, to look deeper and see more. Look deeper and see more – there’s an allusion there – I’d like you to imagine you’re in a stolen rowing boat on a moonlit lake (which is not to say, of course, that I’d like you to steal a rowing boat next moonlit night) and look over the side. The first thing you see is your own face, then the moon, then the mountains all reflected in the surface of the water. But then you look deeper and see, below the surface, a shoal of fish, an eel, great swathes of weed that were invisible to you before.

If you look deeper into the Ithaka poem then you’ll see the allusion to Homer’s Odyssey, an epic tale from early Greece that’s worth finding out about and if you look deeper into my stolen boat you might be led to Wordsworth’s Prelude and wonder how much I’m alluding to that poem and how much I simply hope you’ll think I am.

What does it mean to look deeper and see more? It means concentrating, it means taking time, giving yourself time, it means going out and looking into things that other people are interested in and you’ve not come across. I don’t have time to follow up all my own references – doing so is part of looking deeper, something you’ll have to do on your own – but the Wordsworth is so glorious that I can’t resist reading you a few lines – the poet is stealing a boat:

“I unloosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of mountain echoes did my boat move on;
Leaving behind her still on either side,
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,
Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point
With an unswerving line, I fixed my view
Upon the summit of a craggy ridge.”

He steps in, feels the wobble, hears the waves echo off the hillside, sees the ripples in the water. He pauses for a moment and then, fixing his eyes on his goal pulls determinedly on the oars. When you settle to work do the same – get your things ready, dispose of distractions, take a moment to focus yourself, and then pull determinedly towards your goal. Don’t spend half an hour faffing, standing in your boat wobbling, don’t allow yourself to be dragged away by the ping of a phone or gossip from a friend, and don’t think that a single pull of the oars is job done, you have to work determinedly.

I’m asking you to change your habits – to become an adult student rather than a child pupil. In fact, being at Harris Clapham Sixth Form is to be asked to change a lot of your habits, to outgrow childish ways and become a young adult – that is the adventure we’re offering you, one that I hope you’re excited by – however far along this road you feel you’ve come already.

A big part of this is taking responsibility for your own behaviour. Let me explain: at secondary schools there would be rules, but it would be the teachers’ job to make you follow them, if you could quietly ignore them and get away with it then that was fine – actually it wasn’t fine, you were making headaches for other people, but as a kid you get away with that, you have grown-ups to help you. That’s not how it works here – it’s your job to make the most of your studies, to look deeper and see more, and your job to help other people make the most of their studies, your job to make the school a more pleasant place for us all to be at. As you walk into classes, you’ll hear teachers saying “Clubger” – a mnemonic for starting lessons that reminds you to take off your ourdoor coat, wear a lanyard, have the right uniform, put your bags on the floor, empty the gum out of your mouths, get the right equipment out and then reminds your teacher to take the register. Clubger. This doesn’t mean it’s the teacher’s responsibility to check you’ve done all that – these are obvious things to get right so you’re ready – they are sitting down in the boat and pushing off from the shore so you can be like one who rows, proud of his skill.

There are other things as well, where being more grown up means you do the right thing without being reminded – don’t shout across the canteen, if 300 people did that the noise would be terrible – just get up and walk over to the person you want to talk to; if you are upset with someone, don’t fight them, resolve your differences with polite discussion; if you fancy someone, don’t say “Phwoar, look at that!”, instead go over to them and ask about their classes, or how their day is going, or what they think of the Rams’ chances this year. Don’t leave litter – in fact, you should try to pick up one piece of litter each day that isn’t yours and pop it in the bin – not because someone just told you, but because if we all do that then the school will be nicer for everyone. Being grown up means taking responsibility for your actions, it means making the world around you better, it means not being a jerk.

Back to the first poem – to Ithaka and another line, talking about monsters:

“Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon – you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.”

The things that will stop you doing well here are the bad habits you bring with you, the ways of studying that worked for you at GCSE but aren’t good enough for sixth form; the ways of engaging with teachers that were fine for Year 11s, but aren’t how grown ups do it; the limits to hard work that you found comfortable at secondary school but which don’t give you five hours of prep and reflection per subject per week – fifteen hours a week altogether. Take this opportunity to cast them off, be courageous to change yourself.

And I finish with a final poet who speaks about the difficulty of remaining focused on that goal, on Ithaca, on the craggy ridge, the challenge of rowing an unswerving line whilst those around you get it wrong, look to distract you, or bring you down. She says simply this:

I keep cruising, can’t stop, won’t stop moving,
It’s like I got this music in my mind
Saying “It’s going to be alright”
The players gonna play
The haters gonna hate
Baby, I’m just gonna shake
Shake it off, shake it off.