Alma Mater

“Alma Mater: You’ve been asked to speak at your high school alma mater – about the path of life. Draft the speech.”

Firstly, let me say that I am greatly honoured to have been invited to talk to you all on my old school’s Speech Day. I well remember attending these events myself when I was in your position, and given my own memories of dull old men droning on about maintaining standards and all that stuff, I approach the task with some trepidation.

But the truth is, I am particularly glad to be here this evening and I’m going to tell you why.

It’s been over forty years ago, so I presume that the Statute of Limitations has come into effect, but I have to confess that I skived off my last Speech Day as a pupil of this school.

I did it because I found them boring – as pretty much everything is when you’re eighteen – and it was a final act of rebellion with no adverse consequences. After all, what could they do: expel me?

However, I have regretted that decision, off and on, ever since. Not in the sense that it has ruined my life or anything so extreme – it was just some old bore droning on about something or other, right? – but because it was, as I subsequently came to realise, a symbolic moment: a rite of passage, if you will.

Leaving school is the point from which you have to make decisions for yourself: to become a responsible adult.

I say this, although I know that the school’s excellent academic record means that most of you will effectively be postponing your final submission to the world of work by taking a university degree. And this will, no doubt, be preceded by a gap year.

Now that’s a new thing on me. There was no such concept back in the seventies, but from what I gather, a gap year is a twelve month transitional period between school and university during which you travel and ‘find yourselves’ and so prepare you for college life.

That’s the theory, but in fact its main purpose is to allow your parents to prepare for college life by teaching them how to send you money electronically (usually to the closest Post Office to Machu Pichu) rather than hand it over directly in cash.

Anyway, so eager was I to seize this opportunity for ‘closure’, as they say, that I made the fundamental error of not properly checking what I was getting myself into before accepting.

To be perfectly honest, I can’t for the life of me recall a single word that was said at any of the Speech Days that I did attend. So, you’ll be glad to know that if this isn’t already a blur, it pretty soon will be.

I would have been at a complete loss to know what to talk about today without asking the headmaster for a prompt of some kind.

‘Talk about the path of life’, he said.

When I played rugby, this was known as a hospital pass.

‘The path of life’. Well, congratulations on not giving out a collective groan – or at least on stifling it so effectively.

But don’t worry. I am not about to tell you how to live your lives. I have no doubt that you would be just as enraged as I would have been – and still would – if somebody, whom you had probably never met, or even heard of, started getting prescriptive about how you ought to live your life.

So, all I’m going to do today is to let you in on the big secret. And the big secret is that there is no path of life.

Except the one you make for yourself.

Your life, your path: and that will be whatever you choose to make of it. Try to choose wisely of course – that goes without saying – but when you don’t, as will inevitably happen sometimes, then try to learn from your mistakes.

And that’s all I have to say on the subject, so that wasn’t so bad, was it? Now, headmaster: how about a half-day holiday for these fine, upstanding citizens of tomorrow?;

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