"I wrote this assembly during the Easter Holidays whilst looking out over the glistening blue Ionian sea towards the rugged mountains of Corfu and Albania, from the tiny Greek island of Paxos where, as many of you know, I have a little house right on the cliff edge on the northernmost point of the island. Gazing on this view, as I have done for many hours over the last 30 years, I always feel connected with the myths of antiquity – the Iliad and the Odyssey – the very first epics of Western Literature from where so many great stories were born. I imagine brave, ‘swift-footed’ Odysseus sailing south towards his home in Ithaca, heavy with NOSTOS – a painful longing for home, with the beautiful yet deathly sirens in tow. I imagine the ancient treasures lying on the deep seafloor – amphora, shipwrecks, and trophies that mark the remnants of ancient glorious battles. In fact, legend has it that the two rocks that lie alone out to sea north of Paxos on the other side of the bay from where I sit are in fact the fossilised remains of Odysseus’ doomed ship.
It is as good a spot to gather inspiration for an assembly as you can get really. I sat up there on the cliff edge and thought, ‘what pearls of wisdom can I impart on the school as part of my leaving speech from the privileged position of the pulpit? What have I learnt over the years about LIFE that I can share?’ I have learnt a lot. And I am not planning to share it ALL - don’t panic Artemis. My daughter, Artemis. Named after another strong ancient Greek Legend with the epithet, ‘wild huntress’. Artemis is Goddess of the Moon and the animals, sister of Apollo – who was God of the Sun, ‘bearer of light’. But, it is perhaps Poseidon who is most symbolic in this splendid view over the Mediterranean from the cliff edge – God of the Sea and of Earthquakes, protector of seafarers. Legend has it that Poseidon split Corfu apart with his trident and created the island of Paxos for himself and the sea nymph Amphitrite as a little romantic love nest for the two of them.
Anyway, I digress. But is it not incredible that these Epithets, the defining adjectives to describe these characters, ‘leader of men’ Odysseus, ‘wild huntress’ Artemis, ‘giver of light’ Apollo and ‘protector of seafarers’ Poseidon, have remained resonant and bright for nearly 3000 years!
These powerful stories and the strong epithets of these mythical characters have in fact helped me in my recent choice to leave Norwich School. I have been agonising over this decision for months. I have had lengthy conversations with my family and friends about taking the leap away from the familiarity and sanctuary of Norwich School and the Cathedral Close. The decision to leave has been all the more difficult because I love my job. I don’t think that many people can say this. Sure, they are happy enough, or are satisfied that their job earns them enough money to support their family and pay the bills, but I can honestly say that not a week has gone by when at some point I have not stood at the back of a bustling class in P13 and thought ‘wow, I really love my job’.
So why leave? Because there are times in our lives when we all need to shake ourselves up a bit in order to create our own really good stories, even if we feel comfortable and safe where we are. And after 10 years here, I am definitely due a new chapter. As are all of you, who are about to embark on your exams marking the end of one academic year and the beginning of a new. Many of you will progress to your new GCSE or A-Level choices, or out of Norwich School completely as your years here come to a close and you head towards brand new exciting horizons.
It was one particular conversation with my Dad that helped seal my decision to leave. He said to me after I had listed a string of concerns I had about leaving the UK, ‘Come on luvvy, it’s time to remind yourself, “Who is Vic Turner?” and I thought, what a smart question that is. What a smart question to ensure we create our own unique paths and epithets in such a way that our names become synonymous with a really good story! At the risk of being a bit vainglorious, ask yourselves that question now about your own name… Who is William Woodhead? Who is Alex Mandalakis? Who is Shraeya Saranaravel? Who is Teddy Valentine?. What will people think when they hear your name? What sort of person do you want to be? What stories do you want to create for yourself? What will be your legacy? How will your grandchildren remember you? What should be your epithet?
The Mediterranean seas have been ever-present and symbolic throughout my life. I grew up swimming, fishing and playing in their clear waters throughout the long summer holidays. Then, as a young adult, I sailed around the Ionian crewing on yachts and having all sorts of adventures. And later, I raised my own daughter Artemis until she was the age of 5 on the tiny Greek Island of Paxos with the Mediterranean seas and the connotations of all their wonderful myths around us.
More recently though I have been consumed by other stories. The desperate stories of more contemporary heroes: the thousands of men, women and children that place themselves in fragile, barely seaworthy vessels to cross over unknown seas into Europe, where they believe they will find sanctuary and a new hopeful life. What of their stories? Fleeing from the war-torn cities of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan. Gathering what little money they have to buy boat tickets from devious smugglers, in the hope that they will somehow survive in Europe, go to school, find a job and someday return home with some savings. The reality of these stories is in truth harrowing, as many of you following the refugee crisis in the news will know. Over 50,000 souls, many of whom are orphaned children helplessly marooned where their boats washed up miraculously on the Greek Islands of Lesbos, Kos, Samos or Chios. They wait in limbo, with limited schooling, social services, or counselling for the horrors they have endured, whilst the poorly resourced Greek bureaucratic system tries to process their asylum claims. The trauma that many of them have endured in their devastated homelands, then on the dark seas where they will most likely have lost loved ones along the way, is unimaginable to us here in our comfortable, secure lives. Terrible Stories.
Theirs are stories of survival. Ours are stories that we can choose. Let us never take those choices and opportunities available to us for granted. They are there for the taking and we are so unbelievably privileged to have them.
So be mindful of those who do not have the liberties that you do. Even more, a reason to seize your life gratefully and eagerly with both hands and begin creating your own destiny. You have so much power to do so, and it starts with the choices you make now: how you treat others, how you approach your studies, how you conduct yourself, how you choose to be seen. The power is yours. Make good choices.
The final push for me to leap into unfamiliar waters was a prayer that Rev Child read out a couple of months ago in assembly. The Prayer of Sir Francis Drake – another great sailor and intrepid explorer of the 16th century. As Rev Child read this prayer, I had a lightbulb moment and simultaneously caught Artemis’ knowing eye and a cheeky smile across the cathedral. The essence of the prayer was this: ‘we must disturb ourselves and dare to leave the safety of the shore for wilder unknown seas…Because it is only when we lose sight of the land that we will discover the stars’.
‘That’s me’ I thought. We must push ourselves into new horizons, beyond our comfort zones, we must be ready to be afraid, and we must create great stories."
The prayer of Sir Francis Drake that Miss Turner refers to is:
Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves, when our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little, when we arrive safely because we have sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, Lord, when with the abundance of things we possess, we have lost our thirst for the waters of life; having fallen in love with life, we have ceased to dream of eternity; and in our efforts to build a new earth, we have allowed our vision of the new Heaven to dim.
Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas where storms will show your mastery; where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars. We ask you to push back the horizons of our hopes, and to lead us into the future in strength, courage, hope, and love.