This week’s virtual whole school Senior Assembly was led by Headmaster Mr Doodes who discussed what defines success to him through a powerful story about bouncing back from the challenges life throws at you.
First, monitor Olly Flanagan, opened the assembly with his monitor’s address where he discussed the importance of communicating with your friends & family during lockdown and keeping the conversation going.
Head of School, Olivia Howard then announced a new initiative thought up by the Monitors and the School Library, The Great KSW book exchange. More information about this can be found on firefly.
I want to tell you a story this morning.
It’s a true story. And it’s deeply important to me that you hear it, because it defines for me what success is all about, and why resilience and determination are the two many key attributes I want all of you to possess.
And it’s all about a lady called Jenny whom I once taught, and who is now coming up to her 32nd birthday.
Jenny was brought up in Newcastle, having been born in Tyneside, and lived there for around seven years. Her parents separated when she was a baby, and her father has lived in Birmingham ever since, whilst her mother re-married. Jenny’s father was a South Africa, brought up in Madagascar and had a very interesting childhood. Jenny’s mother struggled with mental health problems her whole life and never managed to have a career, working odd jobs when Jenny was a young child to make ends meet.
Jenny went to a Steiner School for a couple of years around the age of 10 years, an educational model that did not work for her. Her mother divorced her stepfather, who was not a very pleasant person, and they moved to Salisbury in Wiltshire. Jenny arrived at the local comprehensive at 14 with no real maths knowledge and was placed in the bottom set. Because they taught modular exams, the best grade she would have been able to have attained was a C.
Jenny had dreams of becoming a vet. A C grade in maths was not compatible with this, so she found herself a Saturday job in a cafe to pay for an hour a week of maths tuition from a teacher at her school. Jenny begged the school to let he sit a higher level exam paper which would allow her to be able to attain an A.
This is bounce-back Number 1.
In the middle of Jenny’s GCSEs her mother had a breakdown and disappeared. Jenny’s generous head of year took her, and her little dog, into her house. She fed her, took her to school every day and she managed to sit the exams and attain 5 A grades – including that one needed in maths – and 5 A* grades, as well as half a B in RE, but something had to give.
This is bounce-back Number 2, and Jenny’s dream of becoming a vet was still alive.
Jenny spent the summer after GCSEs planning for her A levels, and then in the midst of it, her mother disappeared again. Jenny woke up to the police knocking on the door, who then asked to see he mother. ‘Sure’ she said ‘I’ll get her’. But when she looked, she wasn’t there. She disappeared for a year with no contact, completely disappearing off the face of the earth.
Jenny went to live with her father in Birmingham, and they looked at the local schools there. The area in which they were living wasn’t great, and nor were the schools she could attend. Jenny and her father knew that she wouldn’t stand a chance to realise her dreams if she went to one of those schools.
Jenny’s father is a great man, and although he lives hand to mouth, he is well educated and creative. He and Jenny had the idea of sending Jenny to an independent school. Now this was a super idea, apart from the fact that he could barely pay his own rent, never mind pay school fees.
So, they penned a letter to around 20 schools around the country explaining Jenny’s plight and asking if anyone could help. This was late in August before Jenny was due to start her A Level studies in September.
Most schools didn’t reply. A couple of schools replied with apologies that they couldn’t help. A school in Cumbria replied saying ‘we want to help, come and see us’. So Jenny and her father fuelled the car and drove up there. They were kind and listened, but could only offer a 50% reduction in fees. Although this was incredibly generous, there was no way they could afford this so the offer had to be declined.
Then the letter from the school Jenny finally attended arrived. They wanted to help. They drove from Birmingham and met with the Headmaster and Bursar. The Head listened to Jenny’s story and said ‘I think you need to be here with us.’
Jenny and her father were sent outside while the Head discussed the case with the bursar, and when they came back in they explained that unfortunately they didn’t have any money left in the bursary fund, especially as term was due to start the week after.
The Bursar left, and the Headmaster had some coffee brought to them all. He said that actually, Jenny needed to be at that school and that he would make it happen. This sort of comment is every Bursar’s nightmare.
So the next week Jenny went to that independent school.
This is bounce-back number 3.
At this school, Jenny saw another side of life – the endless opportunities, the easy access to food, the kindness of everyone. She’d never before witnessed a desire from the students for the students to succeed. Suddenly, Jenny’s lifelong desire to succeed academically was shared by others. She described it as an epiphany. She achieved the A level grades which opened the doors she wanted and won a place at the Royal Veterinary College in London, at the time probably one of the most coveted courses in the country.
This is bounce-back number 4.
One morning Jenny woke up and decided that as people had been so kind to her, she wanted to help people instead of animals. So at the end of her A level years she took a year out to reapply, in the meantime working as a live-in nanny. She applied for medicine, and then UCAS messed up her application, having left her veterinary place on the system which hadn’t allowed her medicine application to be sent to the universities. It was completely their fault, but the computer said couldn’t be overridden, it was too late, and she’d have to try again in a years’ time.
So Jenny wrote to the universities to which she wanted to apply to explain the situation. Three of them said that it was a late application and those are categorically not permitted, but one replied with sympathy and invited her to go and see them.
This is bounce-back number 5.
Jenny dipped into her overdraft, borrowed a car, filled it up, drove from where she was working as an au pair to Plymouth for an 8:30am meeting, had an interview and drove home again.
She was offered a place read medicine.
This was bounce-back number 6.
Jenny has spent the last 18 months as a Paediatric Intensive Care Unit Registrar who has flown in helicopters around the UK and driven at high speed in ambulances to save the lives of countless dangerously ill children. She’s held grieving parents tightly in her arms as they’ve had to open their eyes to unspeakable loss, and also shared others’ joy as a child lives when it may have died. And now she’s on secondment to an Adult Intensive Treatment Unit at a large General Hospital in a high coronavirus area where she’ll be saving the lives of COVID victims.
However, Jenny could have fallen at any of the bounce-points I mentioned above. She could still be in Salisbury in a dead-end job having thrown everything in and not motivated herself.
When she found herself in the wrong maths group when studying for her GCSEs, she could have not taken that Saturday job, not got that extra tuition, and not pushed herself to get the better grades.
When her mother had a breakdown and disappeared Jenny could have gone off the rails, not remained focussed on her exams, and not achieved all those As and A stars at GCSE.
When she moved back with her father, and found the schools she was able to go to were far from suitable, she could have not persevered and written to other schools in the hope that someone would see her potential.
When she went to her new school, she could have been mesmerised by the new life she was given, the opportunities, and squandered them to the detriment of her studies.
Instead she persevered and achieved a place at one of the most sought after courses in the country.
When her application for medicine fell through, she could have waited another year, or become distracted, but instead put pen to paper and got in front of an admissions tutor to ensure she got a place.
And when she got an interview, she could have failed it, and not shown her passion and determination at that stage. But she didn’t.
Her name isn’t Jenny.
The locations are different.
There’s no mention of the school she attended.
But everything else is completely true.
And this vibrant, ambitious, determined little girl is now one of the most successful medics of her generation.
She has never let go of her dreams.
As you go about your work this week, remember the perseverance that Jenny had. Don’t lose sight of the dreams you’ve got. If you get a knock-back, kick-back and don’t let it define you.
Those in the Upper Sixth only have two terms left of me saying the following phrase, but those who are in the Lower 4 have six more years after this one, so you’ll hopefully never forget it.
Life is not defined by how high you fly, but instead by how well you bounce.
As many of us face challenges, difficulties and set-backs, especially some of those in the Upper Sixth who frankly must never be defined by it, I ask this of you: brush yourself down, don’t lose sight of you hopes and dreams, and do all you can to bounce back like Jenny.
You can view last weeks Senior Assembly here.