Some years ago I attended a Speech Day at a comprehensive boys’ high school at which the guest of honour was one of Australia’s contemporary music legends. Although himself a former student of the school, he did not occupy the stage for very long - as a speaker at least. Instead he preferred to let his music do the talking; performing one of his greatest hits, a much acclaimed national anthem of sorts, in collaboration with the School Band. But in the few short minutes during which he did speak, the great man managed to powerfully convey his gratitude for the inspiration provided by his (now retired) high school music teacher; she, poignantly, also in attendance. It was that teacher, he shared with us, who had given him the confidence to pursue a career in music at a time in his life when he most needed to receive that encouragement from someone he trusted.
More recently I attended a funeral for the mother of a fellow I knew well in my youth, and with whom I have more recently re-connected. David is the oldest of three brothers, all of whom attended the same single sex private school that I did in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. At the wake I found myself talking to another very prominent Australian musician; one who had attended that same school in the cohort a couple of years behind me. During the course of our conversation I asked Tim whether our old school had ever invited him to speak to the current students about his time there, or his career in music. His response shocked me. In a tone that suggested he had expected nothing more, he indicated the school had never extended that invitation to him, and he doubted they ever would. I was particularly surprised because, not only is he as well known and celebrated in the wider community as any Old Boy of his generation, but I clearly recall him to have been an outstanding scholar, the recipient of countless Speech Day prizes during the years we were both students together. Given his intelligent and perceptive mind, his enviable ability to articulate his thoughts on a multiplicity of topics, and his success in an incredibly competitive and challenging field of endeavour, one might have thought he would make an ideal Speech Day guest. Not so apparently. Go figure.
In any event, these two experiences have led me to subsequently consider what thoughts I might usefully share with a captive collection of high school students, and their parents, in the (very) unlikely event that I was ever asked to orate at a Speech Day myself.
I hasten to add that the speech you see below is one delivered to a school I never attended, and which reflects the life experiences and accumulated wisdom of a man I resemble in passing only.
In my first few years at this School I was anything but a model student. I was cheeky, often to the point of rudeness, and I had a persistent and recurring difficulty complying with rules, or accepting the directions of those in authority. As a result of which I got into far more than my share of trouble. And of course my hair was much longer than most of my fellow students. Very cool I was. Just ask me.
A member of staff told me at one point in time that I held the record for the greatest number of detentions handed out to any boy in the entire school for that particular year – a record of which, I am a little ashamed to now say, I was at that moment immensely proud.
Another member of staff informed me, on the opening day of a new academic year, as we squared off against one another for the very first time, that I was often referred to in the School Staffroom by those who had had the misfortune to teach me as simply “that shit”. True story.
I wonder if any of you students here today can identify with any of that. I see a few conspiratorial looks directed my way. Respect gentlemen. Just don’t let your parents know. Our secret yeah?
And yet here I am. The guest of honour speaking to you all on arguably the most important day on the School calendar. And indeed before I had even passed out of those gates over there for the final time I had been given, and had gratefully accepted, an appointment as the School’s Vice Captain. Captain would have been way too much of a risk I think we can all agree.
So now, I know what you’re thinking. How the hell did that happen? How did this joker go, within a couple of short years, from being an obnoxious troublemaker with a large target on his back to being one of the leaders of the School’s student body? Good question.
I’ve been giving that question some serious thought recently – or in any event since the invitation to speak today was extended to me ‑ and this is what I’ve come up with.
During my journey through this School it seems I came to appreciate, slowly but surely, that it was providing me with a host of significant opportunities. And I’m not just talking here about the opportunity to learn, and to participate in sport, and music, and drama – not that I am in any way underestimating how important those opportunities were, and remain.
And nor am I just talking about the opportunity to work out what sort of career I could or should pursue. To digress for a minute, there are many of you out there who are probably wrestling with that dilemma right now. And to you gentlemen, and to your parents as well for that matter, I would say these two things.
Number one: do not base your choice of vocation on how well you think it may remunerate you. Base it instead on your interests and your talents. Trite as it may sound, it really is true that if you are doing what you enjoy, you are very much more likely to be enjoying what you do.
And number two is this. Almost any choice you make during the course of your working career about what you want to do, and be, can be re-visited down the track. So don’t panic. You have time.
There were other opportunities too that this School afforded me. For example, the opportunity to form meaningful and significant relationships with a number of the wonderful members of staff. People who helped me to understand what I might become – if only I could just take my head out of my own arse long enough to see what they could see.
Another was the opportunity to become a person of influence amongst my own peer group, and within the wider School community. Now this is something that is very close to my heart. Because, in my view, there is simply no power in this world that is greater than the power we have to influence others. And if we use that power wisely, and benevolently, then we – you, me, us – we can be a positive force within the households, the organisations, the communities, and the society we are fortunate enough to be a part of.
So without even realising I was doing it at the time, I started to take advantage of these opportunities that were being offered to me here. And by doing that, over months and years, I began to work out what sort of man I wanted to become. I am very glad, and even a little proud, to be able to report to you that just forty short years later I am on the way to becoming that man – or at least the version of him that I currently aspire to. Yay me.
There was one other, at least one other, important opportunity that I took advantage of while I was here at this School. That was the opportunity to make friends; to surround myself with other young men I could rely upon, and who could hopefully rely upon me. A few of those friends are here today, and I thank them very sincerely for their support – not just today, but over a number of years.
Many of you here today are almost certainly aware of my personal battles, and possibly also the reasons for them. And although I wouldn’t suggest for a minute that you should, when faced with today’s climate of media spin, and the frippery that often masquerades as news, believe everything you hear or read, equally I must concede that much of what you think you know about me is probably true.
The way I see it the true test of friendship is not how you behave when you and your mates are out there having fun together. It’s what you do when someone’s life takes a turn for the worse. When things get difficult for someone you know and care about. It is those friends I spoke of a moment ago that brought me back into the light from the dark places I had chosen to inhabit when I felt the world I knew and needed was crumbling around me.
Although most of you young men out there listening to me today crave your independence, and rightly so – you understandably look forward to the time when you can make your own choices and decisions, and live life on your own terms – I must confess to you that I now believe the sign of having reached maturity as a person is not independence, but rather an appreciation that the presence of others in our lives makes us complete, and safe, as human beings in a way that we can never hope to be on our own.
So I ask you, rhetorically of course, to think about this: What will you do when you have a friend who is going through a dark period in his or her life, or who might be putting themselves, or others, at risk? Maybe you know someone who is in such a place right now. The power to influence others is the greatest power we have.
If I was to tell you that when I attended this School more than 40 years ago there was not a single female member of the teaching staff, I suspect the younger ones amongst you would shake your heads in disbelief. But that is exactly what I am telling you. I see heads shaking. There you go. Thankfully that situation has been well and truly redressed over the years since, culminating of course in the appointment last year of your very first female principal. Yes, I agree, a round of applause is well and truly in order. Congratulations to you Jessica. And whether you students of today realise it yet or not, you are so much the better off for that change.
Because although I do not subscribe to the conclusion that our news headlines regularly foist upon us – namely, that the world is going to hell in a handcart at an increasingly rapid rate – it would also be naïve to deny that evil and greed and malice exist within our society. And, truth be told, sadly much of it emanates from young men not much older than many of you. But I have hope. I have hope because it seems we are gradually coming to understand that placing more and more of the important decisions of the world in the hands of more and more women each and every day can and will fundamentally alter the status quo. And will alter it for the better.
We have covered a lot of ground today haven’t we? I can see a few glazed eyes and drooping heads, so I guess that means it’s time for me to wrap things up. But before I do I suspect I might helpfully provide an executive summary for those of you who may have missed a few bits and pieces along the way.
First of all, going in reverse order: boys, listen to the women and girls in your lives, and be grateful for them. They know things we do not know, they understand things we do not understand, and most of it will be helpful to you, and indeed to all of us.
Second, don’t ever underestimate your power to influence the world around you. And don’t imagine for a minute you can only do that by writing a book or an article or a song or a movie that millions see or hear, or by speaking at a Speech Day. You can change the world of someone you care about today or tomorrow or next week just by listening and sharing, by loving and giving.
And finally, have a think over the summer about the opportunities life is affording you, and in particular the opportunities this School is providing, or has provided, and work out what you can do to take best advantage of them. Although, if my own experience is any guide, it will likely take you the rest of your lives to work out who and what you want to be, it seems to me that now is as good a time as any to start that process.
Before I go can I just say to those who have invited me here today, and to all of you who have listened, thank you for having me. I suspect you cannot fully appreciate how grateful I am for having received this opportunity – just one more in a long line of opportunities gifted to me by this very important institution – without which, self‑evidently, I would not be where I am today.