26 Jun 2020

Alex Hems: Speech Day Address

Mrs Alex Hems addresses the Leavers of 2020 and their parents at U6 Speech Day.

"Mr Brewer, members of Council, colleagues, parents and Leavers of 2020 it is my great privilege and pleasure to speak to you today, to report on this year at school and to say some words about our Upper Sixth as they prepare to leave our school and launch themselves into the next stage of their lives.

As you took your seats just now you heard the pipes played by three girls who have piped for St George’s over a number of years now, often on cold, windy nights when, as younger girls they watched older students flocking past them into Burns Suppers. They have greeted us outside St Giles at Christmas, moved us to tears at Remembrance Day services, enchanted us at concerts, and piped previous year groups of Upper 6 into their Speech Days. Today I would like to thank Lexi, Kathryn and April for all that they have done for us through their beautiful piping over the years. Can I ask their parents please to assist us now in making a small presentation to them? Thank you.

I am delighted that today we will be able to celebrate the contribution that every one of you has made to this school. For some, achievements are public and easily recognisable in a public context; for many others the achievements of this year have been personal and maybe less quantifiable. What truly matters is that we know that every girl  has set herself high standards and has striven to meet them. Any school year brings with it unexpected joys and challenges. This has been no exception, but there is no question that the challenges have been greater than usual.  It started very auspiciously, however, with the arrival of excellent Higher results in August, and then, early in the autumn term, with St George’s first ever Model United Nations Conference. What a wonderful weekend that was – over 200 participants, inspiring speakers and the palpable excitement that comes from being with young people who are curious, energetic, keen to learn and to challenge themselves. Girls, we saw you at your finest – leading, inspiring, working hard behind the scenes. One of the loveliest moments for me was when I saw an Upper 6 student take time to encourage a younger girl, who had never spoken at a conference before, and help her to find her voice.

It is our hope that everyone at St George’s will find her voice while she is here. We encourage you to be Women of Independent Mind. One of the most notable vehicles for this is your own publication, IW, or Independent Women, which this year has gone on-line. You have produced outstanding editions for us this year, and I especially commend the final, Lockdown Edition to you, which, we have just heard, has gained us a place in the Shine Media Awards finals again this year. Congratulations to all who have been involved.

Independent thinking was evident too in the achievement of the team who travelled to London in March for the final of the UK Space Design Competition, after winning their grueling two-day qualifying stage in Edinburgh. We were proud not only of the individual success achieved in London but also of the immense amount of hard work and creative thinking that went into your preparation. These are attributes that have characterized so much of what you have achieved at school. Over the two years that it has been in place, many of you have taken up the opportunity to enter our Old Girls’ Association Award, submitting diverse, creative pieces of work which illustrate your spirit of inquiry, willingness to undertake a challenge and to embrace hard work. We saw and rejoiced in this same spirit when we heard so many of you performing in the Young Musician, and this year the Young Singer of St George’s competitions in the autumn. Thank you to all of you who took part and shared so much of your love of music and performance with us. One of the great losses of this term is the Leavers’ Recital, which is always such a moving event, as we witness the culmination of your musical careers at school. But we thank all of you who have contributed to the musical life of the school over many years.

October saw an eager but probably also apprehensive group of girls and staff set off to Nepal for an adventure which, I am quite sure, has changed many of your lives. You worked so hard to get there, with many hours of fundraising and team building in preparation. The teachers who went with you were full of praise for your support for one another, your open-minded embrace of what you encountered there, your endurance and sense of humour. It was one of the proudest moments of my year when I read a message from the  Gurkha Welfare Trust, after your visit there, commenting on your demonstration of : an extraordinarily deep understanding of life in Nepal, of the international development sector in general and more specifically of our work among Gurkha veterans and their communities.  I know you will be rightly proud of the many achievements of your girls but they are a credit to the school and to themselves’

As we moved towards the end of the autumn term mysterious parcels started to arrive in the Upper School Office and requests were going out for all manner of props and decorations – it was of course, the build up to your Ball, and a very memorable transformation of the Hall and Crush Hall for a very lovely evening. January of course brought exams, but also Burns Supper, at which you were as witty, graceful and eloquent as we could have wished for, and beautifully accompanied by the Burns Singers.

One of the features of St George’s that always feels particularly special to me is the inter-year connections that we see around us so often. A moment that stands out in my memories of this year is the support that many of you gave to the Lower 5 A hockey team, by choosing to travel  to watch them when they played their Scottish Cup Final in March. You led the supporters memorably and volubly. Thank you though for adapting your musical performances in that mini-bus ride to Glasgow to suit your Headmistress’s ears.

We look to the Upper Sixth to be leaders across the school, embodying the concept of the ‘servant leader’ and I am very grateful to this year’s prefects and student leadership team for their hard work and energy in carrying out their roles. The Form Prefects play such a key role for younger girls; I can still remember how much those 6th formers meant to my class when I was 11 or 12, indeed I can still remember some of their names, and we thank all of those girls who, by being reliable, cheerful and energetic have been excellent role models in Junior and Lower School. Through Paired Reading and Maths Support you give back to the community. The House Captains and their Vice Captains have coordinated energetic and varied house activities throughout the year and it has been so encouraging to see them working alongside the youngest girls in the school when they assist with Junior School House activities. Thank you girls for House Glee in particular, which is such a highlight at the end of the autumn term. The Charities team led the impressive collection of food for the Harvest Festival, which will go to foodbanks around Edinburgh. It is one of the great strengths of girls’ schools that they encourage girls to see themselves as potential leaders in any field. Our leavers have taken their responsibilities very seriously and carried out their roles with energy and commitment.  You have taken leadership roles as Directors and Designers as well as performers in so many productions. We have appreciated your dramatic talents in Little Women, A Doll’s House, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Beauty and the Beast to name but a few. That 25 of you have continued with the Duke of Edinburgh’s Gold Award this year is a great credit to you; we congratulate the 13 of you who have already managed to complete your awards before the end of your school career. That has, for obvious reasons, been much more tricky this year. Members of the Upper Sixth will be moving on from the Combined Cadet Force. They have all shown a huge amount of commitment to CCF over the years and have been an asset to the contingent. Last night we celebrated the contributions of your year group to Sport, and the achievements, both individual and in your teams, that have brought us so much pride, and the spirit in which you have participated which will bring you such joy in your lives.

While leading in so many areas of school life, the Upper Sixth have alsobeen led, with grace, good humour and apparently indefatigable energy by the Big Four. We thank you all for the tours and the speeches you have given, the meetings you have led and attended, for your willingness to take on so much and for the high standards that you have set for yourselves throughout. It has been a pleasure to work with you all.

That our leavers have achieved so much in their time here, and will doubtless go on to achieve more in their adult lives, is in no small measure a tribute to the hard work and dedication of their teachers. Every year we say farewell to some of our staff. Those of you who were in the Junior School will doubtless remember with a combination of awe and affection Mrs Morven Peden who retires this term. Ms Norma Kerr, who has been with us for nearly thirty years and has led PE, Outdoor Education and latterly the House system as well, is stepping back from her leadership role, but may return to teaching in due course.  Mrs Annelie Strydom and Mrs Kathy Wawro have been with us for ten years in the Junior School, Miss Nicola Collins who has inspired so many young netballers, moves on after 12 years at St George’s. Ms Sue Evans who taught music here since 1996 left us in April. Miss Tricia Lancaster, who provided the beautiful flowers that you see here today, Mrs Karen Gray, Miss Rebecca Loxton, Mrs Mairi Rice and Mr Craig Walker leave from the Upper School. In Nursery we say goodbye to Mrs Nimisha Mistry, and from Houldsworth to Miss Clare McLaughlin, Miss Megan Hammell and Mrs Roseanna Skyba. We wish happiness and success in their future lives to all who are leaving St George’s to move to retirement or the next stage of their careers.

Leavers of 2020, for your year group, across the world, these last three months have brought an extraordinary combination of suspense, anxiety, disbelief and anti-climax. While few of you were likely to be actively looking forward to the examinations season, you were preparing yourselves to be tested, stretched and measured against exacting standards, and quite rightly, you will have had hopes and expectations. You were working hard on dissertations, research projects, folios and exam technique. None of this effort will be wasted – hard work always pays off in one way or another, but it would not be surprising if you felt frustrated and disappointed when your examinations were cancelled. Throughout this period, you have, however, carried yourselves with composure and remarkable maturity. The strength of the bonds between you as a year group was apparent on your last day in school when many of us met in the RMC to say our farewells and to give you your leavers’ hoodies. By then some of you had already undertaken difficult journeys home to other parts of the world. Although today we are all dispersed, we are united not only by technology, but by these extraordinary experiences. Since the disappointments of March you have bounced back, sticking with us as we worked on together into May. We said to you, make the most of this time because what you do with it will define you in the future, and my goodness, you have. You have written research projects about the pandemic, you have taken the opportunity to gain further qualifications, you have volunteered, followed pre-university courses, and found yourselves jobs. It has been a joy to see you joining in with Leavers’ Fortnight – what a memorable singalong that was. Your affectionate, witty and very resourceful Revue, was entirely in keeping with the spirit with which you have met all of these challenges. As I said to you in March, we are defined not by what happens to us in life, but by how we respond. You are ready to leave us. The achievements that I have referred to are only an outline – the publicly visible face of what you do. Underlying this impressive array of activity is the hard work and personal growth that mean that you are now ready to take your places in the world. Proud as we certainly are of your achievements, it is first and foremost as a warm, funny, loyal, sparky group of young women that we will remember you. You were in Lower 5 when I joined, and many of you met with me in the summer term of 2017 and told me of your aspirations and in some cases of your anxieties too. In the Autumn of 2019 we met one-to-one again, this time to talk about your plans for the next stage – whether for university, gap year or college. And now, as we come together at the end of the year, those plans are about to become reality. These meetings are always a joy and a privilege. It is wonderful to hear from you about what St George’s has meant to you, and the pride and affection with which you speak about your school. You speak to me of feeling as though you have been part of a family here, and of this being a place where you have been able to be yourselves. As you prepare to leave I hope that you will take St George’s with you. Take that sense of being yourself – you will change and grow of course, but be true to yourselves and to what you know to be right. Take the spirit of adventure, and the warmth and sense of fun. You will be part of a network for life now, through the Old Girls’ Association and our Foundation Office. You have all heard me say before how important it is that women are there for one another in their working lives. St George’s will be here for you, as I hope that you will be for each other, to rejoice with you when you succeed and to pick you up and set you on your way again if you fall. Remember too the ‘Trouthe & Honour, Fredom & Curteisye’ that should shape your dealings with others. We are proud of you and wish you all much happiness and success in the lives that lie ahead of you. I am going to finish with the words of Michelle Obama: ‘You may not always have a comfortable life and you will not always be able to solve all of the world's problems at once, but don't ever underestimate the importance you can have, because history has shown us that courage can be contagious and hope can take on a life of its own."


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