A while ago I was asked to deliver an assembly to a group of 'High Achievers' in years nine, ten and eleven. I was to talk to them about achieving their potential. I could not think about a subject more full of rubbish than this particular one.
I decided long ago that, to the best of my ability, I would not lie to students that I teach. I would try my hardest to tell them the truth, or at the very least I would be honest to myself; that I would not tell them anything that I was not proud of or believed in.
I therefore approached the task of talking about the ethereal concept of potential, something that I fundamentally do not agree with, with all the enthusiasm of a slug at an all you can eat chinese buffet. So I decided to be true to myself. I decided to be as true as I could be. I present you with a transcript written from my notes for the assembly. Now, obviously, this may not be exactly what I said because the nature of public speaking is, of course, transient in its delivery and application. I will do my best to recreate what I said from a scrawl of red-penned wonder.
"Students, I am here today at the invitation of Mrs. Bun the Baker's Wife to talk to you about achieving your potential.
It is a lie.
You cannot achieve your potential because your potential is a lie.
You are not destined for anything beyond that which you work for.
I am here because I am told that you are all the highest achievers in the school.
In all truth you are probably here because you have a small genetic mutation that causes you to think in a slightly different way to others of your age. This, apparently, is your potential.
This does not mean you are destined for greatness.
This does not mean that you will succeed.
The only factor that controls how high you can achieve is how hard you work.
Sadly, the school cannot help you enough. Your teachers cannot help you enough. If we, as a school, were to take one hundred students and only teach them alone and teach them as well as we possibly could then we would still not achieve all A*s because, in the end, some of them would lack the ability and some wouldn't work hard enough.
You have the ability.
Unfortunately, no-one in the real world expects you to be anything other than another husk of a person slowly paling into insignificance as you wait behind the counter, or desk, or forecourt of another dead end job waiting to either have children, or die, or have children and die.
This means, perversely, that you are totally free.
You are free to do what you want to do, and most importanly you are totally free to fail.
You should never be afraid to fail because it is only through failure that you will ever succeed at anything. Failure is good. It is how you learn. If you want to be incredible you must welcome failure with open arms. You must walk with failure into the darkness.
This may sound strange but you should actively seek out failure. Do this by by attempting things that are too difficult. The exceptional student will bother to hunt out things that are difficult because they enjoy the pursuit of knowledge and the process. They see success not as a goal hanging in front of them. They see it not as something that can be achieved; they see it as a continuing journey. A mission. Success is not a moment. It is not a letter on a piece of paper, or a pay packet, or a brand new TV. Success is a lifetime. If you want to codify success into a single moment then it is the last moment you live. It is a smile on your face on a hospital bed, surrounded by your loved ones. It is in that moment when you look back and see all the things that you did, or tried to do and you smile and think 'I did pretty well there'.
That lifetime, for better or worse, that continuing mission starts, predominantly, now.
The next three years, give or take, will decide which doors open up to you and which never can.
Let me give you an example: I will tell you a story about a friend of mine. He was not a great academic. He did not do exceptionally well at his GCSEs, in fact he just about scraped his way into the sixth form at school but he decided, after nearly failing his AS levels, that he had a reason to do things. He wanted to become a Doctor. A fairly inauspicious start for such a difficult profession. So, he retook. He retook everything. He fought his way through every moment to do the things that he had failed at the first time correctly the second time. He did not get onto medicine at university but he had pulled his grades up high enough to give himself the chance. My friends and I did not see him, pretty much, for the next year because he did everything he could. He volunteered, he studied, he barely slept, and he got onto a course. Not the course, but a course and he jumped from that course to the one he wanted because he worked. He clutched every opportunity and went for it. Within a few years he was top of his class. Last year he got invited to travel abroad on a summer programme to study brains. He will be, i have no doubt, a top neurosurgeon in a few years time. Why? Because he failed, he learned, and he worked hard for what he wanted.
One of the major reasons that this friend did well is because he wanted to do this. He wanted it and he enjoyed it. He did something that interested him. How many of you, honestly, go out and find things out about the world around you because it interests you? I am a little bit notorious in this school for having an exceptional subject knowledge. I can tell you why this is. It is because when I see something that interests me, or I don't understand, I look it up and try and understand it. We have, at our fingertips, the greatest intellectual resource ever invented. And what do we use it for? Pictures of funny animals and selfies. Use it! Find out things. Stuff. Anything. Learn. Enjoy the process of learning. Allow yourself the luxury of becoming more knowledgeable. One day I wanted to find out about Locks. I don't know why. I just was curious. Amazing things river rocks. Raising boats up, lowering them down. Fascinating. Now I know about locks. I know about how they're built, about that sometimes you need a lock that raises boats so high that they have to go in a little box, called a caisson. The biggest one of these, incidentally, is in Belgium, and lifts boats 73 metres. Now, that's probably not that interesting to any of you but it is to me. I love the fact that we, as humans, designed and built these structures and I adore finding out how they work. In a lot of ways it does not matter what you are interested in but it matters to be interested because that pursuit, that need to know about something is what could make you an exceptional person.
Every year, about this time, year eleven students come up to me and ask whether they should do AS English next year and, in general, I ask them all the same question. That question is 'What are you reading at the moment?' And every single one of them who tells me they're not reading anything gets the same response: 'You shouldn't do English.' This seems harsh, yes, but there is no point in doing a subject that does not interest you. There is no point in doing something that you do not care about. Most of the students I deter are trying to do the subject because they think it is a wise choice, or a good option or it'll look good on their CVs. I tell them to thing about what it is they want to do. I tell them to go and be masters of their own futures, to follow their interests, to try and find things to pursue, and fail, and eventually succeed at. And I tell you, in closing this assembly, that it doesn't matter if you aren't ablt to do it now. It only matters if you find something easy. Go out there and find something that you can't do. Because it's not that you can't do it. Don't say to yourself I can't do this.
I can't do this YET.
I was actually quite proud of myself that day. I'm not entirely sure my line manager was though. If you are interested in booking me to come and speak to your disillusioned youth, I can also do balloon animals. Requests to @calamityteacher