Dear Upper Sixth Leaver

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A message to the U6th (Year 13) pupils at Shrewsbury School, June 2020

Dear Upper Sixth Leaver

This is not how we planned it.  None of us imagined that your final term would be spent in bubbles of isolation.  None of us thought you would be saying goodbye to the school through a screen.  None of us thought that when you went home in March, you were leaving for good.  There is no way to dress this up and make it look nice.  This is not how we wanted it to be for you; and it is really very sad.

Some of you have been Salopians since joining the School in Third Form; others joined in Fourth Form; and others still became members of this community in the Sixth Form.  Each one of you is valued; each of you has had experiences here that will shape and stay with you for life.  Each one of you has been part of a house, teaching sets, sports teams, activities, ensembles, friendship groups.  Each one of you has contributed to the richness and vibrancy of this School.  Each one of you is a Salopian.  Each one of you deserved a better ending.

This year, you have shown extraordinary qualities and never more so in this last term.  You have embraced the new normal.  You had to absorb the news that the public exams to which you had been working for 18 months were not going to happen.  You had to decide how to play the summer term in remote.  You could have disengaged.  You could have been half-hearted; cynical; dismissive.  Instead, you chose to be positive.  You chose to turn a disappointment into an opportunity. 

You kept going with your academic learning, running a race knowing that the finish line had been removed.  You showed a proper love of learning.  Then, we launched Shrewsbury U and the ILM course for Young Leaders.  Again, as a year group, you seized this with both hands and the vast majority of you have participated, engaged and kept your minds active. This will stand you in great stead for whatever comes next. Well done indeed and thank you for all your endeavours.

We are now entering the final fortnight of the term.  Normally, for the Upper Sixth, this is a twilight zone of post-exam fun, communal relaxation, soaking up the place before the finale.  This has been denied to you.  Again, there is no way of making this anything other than it is: a huge disappointment.  None of us wanted you to be living out your final two weeks of school from home. 

The Housemasters and Housemistresses, your tutors and your teachers, are thinking of you.  They are in touch and wanting to do all they can to connect with you share memories of your time here and to celebrate with you.  There is no way of replicating the kinds of real experiences they would like to offer, but they are doing their best and I know you appreciate this.  And, as we move towards the end of term, our Virtual Speech Day aims to give you the very best send-off that we can right now.

Beyond that, you know that we have made a commitment to give you all the chance to be together here at Shrewsbury for a social gathering at which you can share memories with fellow pupils and staff.  We don’t yet know when that will be; the Heads of School have taken your views, and the message we have is that you want to wait until we can do something properly.  We will honour this commitment.

I often say that it is the Upper Sixth who set the tone of the School for the pupils.  This is so true this year – you have done it brilliantly.  Even in remote, this positive tone cascades and permeates through the year groups.  You have been real leaders in so many spheres of school life.  

The Heads of School and their Deputies have continued to guide and shape this term with their dedication, positivity and generosity of spirit. 

Each leaving year group hands on the torch to the one that follows it. Your year group will have a unique place in Shrewsbury history. You have lived through unprecedented times: ‘the year they didn’t do exams’; ‘the year they weren’t at school for the summer term’.

But: we will not remember you as the year that ‘did not’. We will remember you as the year that ‘did’.  You did manage the most exceptional of times.  You did stay together.  And you did the School and yourselves proud.

As each of you prepares to leave Shrewsbury, remember that the School is here for you – for life.  We are all proud of you. You are the year group that did.  And you will go on to be people who do. 

Once again, thank you for all you have given to Shrewsbury. 

See you again soon. 

LW

Dear Myrtle and Maud

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You don’t know me – but you met my wife recently.  You probably won’t remember.  She came to see you in the care home you share with about 30 others.  She was wearing greens and a mask.  You made her feel very welcome: you offered her a cup of tea which she couldn’t accept.  She told me a little bit about you when she got home.  Nothing personal or confidential, of course.  She just said that you were wonderful friends.  And told me how you kept each other going.

One of you is 92 and the other is 94.  I can’t remember which way round.  You sit together most of the day, in comfy chairs in a large sitting room with a decent view of the garden.  You tell each other stories and share memories.  You are not the best listeners, if we’re honest.  But you are great story-tellers – and the best of friends.  You cackle at each other’s jokes; you make mischievous comments about your fellow residents; you play little tricks on your carers.  So they say, anyway.  All to pass the time, which you do cheerfully, and always together.

Truth be told, you seem to have a lot of the same conversations.  If one of you goes out of the room, and returns ten minutes later, you greet each other like long-lost relatives.  And loop back into a familiar conversation.  Like an old juke box on free play.

Like an old juke box on free play.

It seems that you both struggle to remember things from the here and now; from this hour to the next.  But longer-held, deeper memories abound.  And you share them with each other freely.  And often.  The past is more present than the present.  Who knows how much of it is real memory; how much is made and re-made in the telling?

There is a danger here.  I am treading a very thin line.  I want to go somewhere that threads its way safely between the ankle-breaking rabbit holes of sentimentalism or pity or projection or just being condescending.  I may get my foot stuck and be guilty of these and more.  I hope not.  But if I am, I sense that you would forgive – and forget.  

You see, I imagine your talk as a kind of charm.  I picture it casting a safety spell around you.  I see your joyful daily endorsement of one another turn solid; a talisman against – whatever.  Are you aware that there is threat outside the enchanted circle of your chat?  Who can tell?  You don’t seem to be fearful.  Not of anything.  Instead, maybe the diurnal rituals of shared remembering insulate you from the harder truths of the present.

Others around you are exposed.  By their knowledge or their ignorance.  You are exposed too.  Yet, you seem to move together in a different place.  One of dignity and innocence; of knowing insouciance.  In this state, I see your vintage minds shining bright with hope and love and laughter. 

Are you sheltering in some woozy, magic kingdom?  Are you hiding there together?  No.  If you are hiding, it is in plain sight of extinction’s alp.  There: I see you rambling on together – equipped with all the careworn kit of the years – cheerfully talking your way across the rocky ground beneath that final incline. 

The phrase ‘Extinction’s Alp’ is taken from from Philip Larkin’s ‘The Old Fools’

This is guesswork, of course.  After all, you were just a 30 second comment.  But you lit up my mind in that short time. 

What I imagine, from this brief window, is two lives wound around each other in a shared present; two friends bound by talk that is potent with memory.  I imagine the two of you together in your chairs side by side.  I picture you laughing.   

And I wish you protected. 

Leo

PS I hope you don’t mind that I changed your names.