“O Captain, My Captain” – My Day Back at School

This evening, I have to make a speech to some school leavers. I am rummaging around my head, working out what I want to say to the young and hopeful that may be of any importance whatsoever. I am not an original thinker, the best I can be is a scrapbook of other people’s ideas, a compilation tape of cover versions of philosophies and discoveries.

The freeness of my thought may be limited by my experience and influences, there are hidden walls around my curiosity, and if I am fortunate and concentrate, I can peer over them every now and again.

I have made a list of trigger words, now I just have to retrieve some sentences that will illustrate them in an interesting enough way that the students won’t be more interested in fiddling with the hardening chewing gum stuck under their municipal chairs.

Dogma, empathy, curiosity, altruism.

That is a start.

Some hours later…

The students were dressed in their best suits, skirts, and pointed shoes. My teacher friend, Charlie, or Mr D as he is to his pupils complimented some he saw on their use of a comb, something which had clearly been a rarity when they sat in his class. I have known Charlie since he our own schooldays, and his shirt is more untucked now than it was when we were thirteen. Neither of us were much good at sartorial elegance in childhood, and this has not changed with middle age.

I stood at the podium, having been introduced as Charlie’s “longtime companion”, which made me feel rather like I was being played by Dirk Bogarde, and I started talking.
As with most gigs, as I sat down again, I remembered what I had meant to say.

What I did recall, was the human ability for delayed gratification.
We live in times where much is immediately available.
We don’t have to wait for Christmas to smell satsumas.
We don’t need to search endless record racks until your fingertips are blisters to find that new, weird song you heard on the late night radio.
Miss anything, then you can catch up with it.

But it’s the ability to wait, if you still can, that can bring the greatest reward. Never mind waiting twenty minutes for a second marshmallow, can you wait fifty years. A young Peter Higgs comes up with a good idea, and it is good enough to lead to a lot of digging under Switzerland, the manufacture of machines almost beyond the imaginations of human beings, and eventually the sending round of bundles of particles at speeds near that of light. And old Peter Higgs wells up as he sits in an auditorium and hears the results of a grand experiment that means the young Peter Higgs really had a very, very good idea.

I was eight years old when Voyager, the fastest moving human-made machine, was launched into space, carrying with it a golden record that shows glimpses of what happens on a planet that holds life, just in case it is intercepted by an interested extraterrestrial. I was 43 years old when that left our solar system. It still has a long way to go. How far will it get? What life will be on this planet if it is ever found by another creature seeking a new holiday destination?

I meant to say “don’t hold on to your beliefs so rigorously that you will neither scrutinise them or re-evaluate them when new ideas are offered to you”.

I suggested they investigate their own minds with a marigold glove, a brush and friend. This is all you need to perform the rubber hand illusion and see someway into how your mind puts together its image of the world. And I asked them to stare in the bathroom mirror and see what monsters or aged beings they were turned into via the Caputo effect.

I forgot to tell them about the gorilla that has started to surreptitiously unscrew its cage at the zoom and decide it was best not to tell them how a bee’s waggle dance changes if you give it a little cocaine.
“Honestly officer, I only have this bag of class A drugs to investigate the brains of my bees”.

I told them that even the greatest scientists still get people to play the bassoon to earthworms when they are intrigued (Charles Darwin and his Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms)

I didn’t tell them about a beautiful moment in the documentary of the Young at Heart.
The aged choir are talking of near death and death experiences, and the choirmaster asks one lady who has previously died for a minute or so, “did you see the light?”
And she smiles, and replies, “I didn’t look”.

Don’t take your self-consciousness, your existence, and your clean water, for granted, was roughly the message.

The highlight was not me, but the reaction to Mr D. He has seen this group through their school years from 11 to 16, and he bid them farewell. He was the true illustration of empathy and altruism. Before the event, the fondness he had for the pupils, and they had for him, was clear as he wandered through packed corridors. His voice cracked a little as he said goodbye to them, and as he walked back to his chair, the hundreds in the hall whopped, and cheered, and gave him a lengthy standing ovation. Our education system, and the teachers within it, are frequently maligned, but here was a teacher who has clearly had a great effect on many he has helped through one of the most difficult and confusing times of their lives.

It is the closest I have seen to a real “O Captain, my Captain” moment from Dead Poet’s Society. I told that to Charlie, and he blushed a little and told me to fuck off. “Longtime companions” do that sort of thing.

the sequel to the Nine Lessons Christmas shows are now on sale, with guests including Mary Beard (15th) , Stewart Lee (17th and 21st), Josie Long and many, many more https://www.thebloomsbury.com/event/run/141215

and if you are seeking some Christmas ghost stories, Dead Funny is now available with stories by Reece Shearsmith, Charlie Higson, Sara Pascoe, Stewart Lee, Katy Brand etc  http://saltpublishing.com/shop/proddetail.php?prod=9781907773761

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