Neil Coppen

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DHS PRIZE GIVING SPEECH 2010

February14


It is strange to be standing this side of the stage, when not so long ago, I was sitting in blazer and tie and sweating where you are, praying that self important ponce at the podium would keep it short and let us all get the hell out of here. So I will do my utmost to keep this presentation as short and valuable as possible.

 

I will not stand here today and give you a patriotic rant on having pride in your school and yourself.  These are all givens. I will try to avoid giving you an essay on tradition and discipline.

While I am extremely proud of my ties with DHS, it is not, I feel, in the limiting sense that some of the school’s old boys are.

The type of old boys who often claim that they attended DHS in its so called “glory days” and that after they left (and perhaps because they left) it all went to pot.

Given half the chance these types of men will bend your ear about what true discipline and respect was. Over a beer– or in their cases several– they might claim that DHS has gone to the dogs and that things, regrettably, just aren’t what they used to be.

What we have to remind ourselves about such “old boys” (really just a euphemism for elderly men)–and every school has them—was that their years at DHS were the happiest time of their life. They are adamant that the school remains exactly how it was when they departed: a type of dusty museum to preserve their memories. Any change to the school in subsequent years is always viewed as a threat and never as the much needed improvement it really is.

 I sympathise with, and at the same time salute, the many leaders and staff members of this school who amongst the day to day challenges (and there are many) of running the school have to frequently contend with such criticisms.

Personally, every time I visit this school and look around, I am in awe of the facilities, the activities, the level of commitment shown here by staff and student.  

Change, as we all know, is not only inevitable but essential.

So today I want to celebrate change. Celebrate Mr Magner and his staff who have worked so hard to keep DHS in the twenty-first-century when others would have preferred to see it stagnate in the previous one.

 Let us celebrate too, that you all don’t have to suffer unnecessarily under the British Public school rule book handed down centuries ago.

When you look at things a little closer you will realise, that boys schools back in the “not so golden age” were really glorified boot-camps for the World Wars, transforming young men, like yourselves, into disciplined regiments before shipping them off to the battle fields.

A visit the war memorials outside this hall will show you what became of those promising young men.

So let’s celebrate that there are no longer wars that require your services and that the system no longer intends to turn you into unquestioning robots before sending you off into an early grave.

 “Halleluiah” I say for change and those courageous enough to implement it.

 Of course, these days DHS has a different sort of war to prepare you for– perhaps as scary as the previous ones– and that is the battle-field of the modern age. The big wide world that awaits once you leave school.

I arrived at DHS in 1995, a time of significant change for the country and indeed in the school. I was fortunate in that I already knew where my interest lay and arrived determined to use my time at the school to grow such passions.

I must then mention two people, who were invaluable in my development and growth at this school– two teachers who I dedicate this speech to:  Mr Geoff Mace who passed away shortly after I left DHS and Mrs Jean McBean who is currently living in Australia.

Within weeks of arriving at the school these two people, supported by Mr Magner and many of the staff, offered me an unbelievable amount of encouragement, creative freedom and support. I was allowed to experiment and try things so that by the time I left school I knew exactly what direction I wanted to head in.

Of course the career path you will choose for yourself is a very important decision you are going to have to make and I can’t encourage you enough to start searching now.

DHS provides you with these platforms– it no longer just favours those who just excel on the rugby-field (a criticism that might have been levelled at the school twenty years ago) but rather invests its energies into many diverse fields and talents. All you have to do is first show the initiative and later the commitment.

Don’t –I urge you– leave it to Matric, don’t get to the end of year and realise:  hang on I haven’t got a clue about what I want to be.

What happens then? Well I’ll tell you. Your parents start freaking and out of desperation they drag you along to some career counsellor where you are given a sort of question and answer quiz.

Neil assuming the role of Counsellor (nasal voiced woman) and dim student

Counsellor: “Are you interested in biology?”

Student: “ Er….the reproduction part”

You might answer

Counsellor: “Are you good at working with your hands?”

Student: “Well I suppose that depends what my hands are working on.”

Counsellor: “Do you have good people skills?”

Student: “ Ya, I dig hanging out with my friends on weekends, so ya.

What happens next? A computer tallies up your score and it is decided, after little deliberation, that you are going to be a Gynaecologist!

Don’t wake up thirty- years down the line only to realise you are stuck in a very big rut. Still wearing a suit and tie and crunching figures for a corporation on floor 3050 of a skyscraper, when all you really wanted to be was a Game Ranger smelling the African daisies out in the open veldt.

Your job or occupation is what will take up 90 percent of your adult life, chose well and make sure that it is the thing that is going to keep you interested for a very long time to come.

I am proud to say that out of my close circle of friends from DHS, all of us are self-employed. None of us wear a suit or tie to work (this is the first tie I have worn since I left the school) none of us have to contend with some Wally of a boss. None of us wake up and dread a day’s work ahead.  Surely that is what life is really about, surely that is the “meaning” we all tend to search so long and hard for.

So do what you love and again I credit this school for providing me and my fellow students and friends with those platforms.

 I wrote and directed my first theatre pieces which premiered on this very stage. It was on this stage— perhaps in a dodgy house play wearing a wig and balloons in a bra– where it all, somewhat worryingly, clicked.

 Similarly my friend Colwyn Thomas got his first whiff of photographic developing fluids in the DHS dark room and has never been the same since. He now works as a celebrated photographer and artist

 Rudi Clark, who owns and runs Spirit of Adventure, was ,once upon a time, a standard six Lightie hung off the edge of one of those Shongweni cliff faces on a school outing

And so the list goes on and on.

I am also grateful too that it was DHS and not Michelhouse or Hilton that my parents sent me to. While these schools are certainly worthy of their reupations, they simply don’t offer an accurate picture of what it means to live in contemporary South Africa nor an education any different to the one you receive here.  

I confess this is a mammoth school, you have to work extra hard to get noticed, to excel but the same is true of life after school. Get used to it now and find ways to rise above the challenges.

DHS presents an honest reflection on the diversity of this country: it pits wealthy suburban boys with boys from disadvantaged backgrounds. Your friendships will and must transcend the class divides—must move beyond the boring prejudices that too often retard and inhibit our society.

At DHS you will share your classroom with a colourful cross-section of  humanity:  rugby jocks, Surfer grommets, future politicians, poets, preachers, anarchists, introverts, gangsters, Casanovas, entrepreneurs, con-artists and performing-artists (the same thing?),  sports- stars, rock- stars, rocket scientists and ,this being Durb’s by the sea, whole populations of Beach bums who use the word Bruuuuuuu in every sentence.

Learn from each other guys! Share your stories, your realities with one another. Really the future lies in rooms such as this one and not, in my opinion, the sheltered and shaded halls of the “hallowed” “private” school.

Again what you make of your time here is entirely up to you. It is –and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise—all about “choice”.  You can of course chose to waste your time here, hate it, fight it, make life a living hell for yourself and those around you OR you can chose to use it to nurture your mind and interests, form friendships with both students and teachers that will remain with you for the rest of your life.

This last comment leads me back to the two teachers I mentioned earlier: Geoff Mace and Jean Macbean, who inspired not just my writing but the path my life would take. .

Such teachers showed me not just what sort of a world I wanted to exist in but what type of person I hoped to become. They invited me into their homes after school, I was introduced to the music of Dave Matthews, poetry by Seamus Heaney and foreign films I had previously been too frightened of watch because you had to spend half the time reading them.

To my mind these are exemplary examples not just of teachers but of human beings: selfless and forward thinking souls who invested their lives and legacies into their students and so today I thank and celebrate them.

In closing, I would like to share with you a poem which Geoff Mace wrote to the cast of one of the school productions I was involved in.

I hope it may inspire and reinvigorate both teacher and student sitting in this hall today.

A Teachers Dream

Teachers are Human too

Although most of our days are filled with pretending

That we are not

We like to share the warmth of a smile

As it bleeds through the veins

The rinsing of the heart with tears

The numbing of hurt in the simple arms of a hug

But, seldom is there time for these purities

In the cluttered, dusty, timetabled predictabilities of our lives

Dreaming allows our souls some room.

When we find a group who want to give

Who want to share

Who listen to the whisperings inside of us

And treat them as more than prattle

Then a teacher starts to believe

To care, to know , to hurt, to feel, to bleed

To sing

And so, to you who have given me so much

Have shared moments beyond the cliffs of the sea

Who listened and cannoned my whisperings in drumbeats

You have painted my memories

With the colour of glory

And gently brushed them with the tone of friendship

For this, I thank you.

And as a teacher, filling his day with pretending

Restricted by the claws of convention

I suppose I should NOT say

What I feel

But I must

By building my dream with broken bricks of reality

You have made me unafraid to say

That I love you

The wrong feeling for a teacher, I know

But then,

Teachers are human too.

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5 Comments to

“DHS PRIZE GIVING SPEECH 2010”

  1. On February 15th, 2010 at 1:03 pm Eric Prinsloo Says:

    Dear Neil,
    I am so sorry that I missed your speech on Friday, as I was unable to attend. I heard from my son David and others about how inspired they felt after listening to your speech. So I am very greatful that you have published this on the web for us to view.
    Having read the speach I can see how they were so touched by the content. I am just sad I didnt get to witness you deliver it! My younger son Steven - now in grade 8 - was also not able to attend due to the space constraints in the hall so missed out on the speech as well. However I will make sure he gets to read it now too!
    Thank You so much for such true and inspiring words!
    Regards Eric Prinsloo
    Father of the current DHS Head Boy, David Prinsloo

  2. On February 15th, 2010 at 1:35 pm Catrien Munro Says:

    Brilliant speech. I had a son in DHS last year and one in grade 11 this year and am extremely happy with what DHS did for them and is still doing for them. We got a lot of criticism when we send them to DHS in grade 8 from our Afrikaans friends, but they adjusted within days and never looked back.

  3. On July 12th, 2010 at 2:09 am Michael Corry Says:

    Thanks so much for this Neil. It certainly brought back a lot of memories and it’s so nice to have a source for one of Mr Mace’s works. I’ll never forget the day we lost him and will always draw on the indelible impression he left on me as a blueprint for life and how to treat other people, even if I seldom achieve it. Good to hear you’re doing well and again, thanks, you summed DHS up perfectly, although, I suspect us boarders may have some slightly different takes on things. Go well.

  4. On October 28th, 2010 at 9:22 am Lara Mellon Says:

    28/10/2010 .. I remember my son James, who is currently in grade 10 at DHS, coming home incredibly inspired after your address to them … and now to read this myslef, and to gain the insight, and understanding and appreciation. With most, if not all of his friends from Prep moving on to private high schools, he was a little alone to begin with … and for all the same reasons as you’ve said, he has remained. Thank you for these beautiful and sincere words … no doubt, from a beautiful and sincere human being.

  5. On February 25th, 2012 at 3:31 pm Jeremy Douglas Says:

    Dear Neil,

    I just found this via a Google search while looking for some of Geoff’s material. Great speech ‘bru’. The sentiment that I most related with was about over-critical old boys. Living in England and coming back once a year, it is always so sad to hear how most think the school has “gone to pot”. As the saying goes;

    “Those who criticize the new generation forget who raised it.”

    I hope you’re well Neil.

    Kind regards,
    Jeremy

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