2013 Speech Day Address by Northwood Headmaster Mr McAvoy

Mr & Mrs Leversha, Your Worship the Mayor, invited guests, colleagues, Knights and Squires, ladies and gentlemen, and in their absence, all who hold Northwood in good heart, I bid you Good Morning.

At various points during my address today I will make statements, present random facts that have nothing to do with what precedes or follows them.  I tell you this now so that you can avoid telling me later that it made no sense at all or that there was no coherent structure.  These facts and statements are various memories that I have of the year, and hopefully they will resonate with you too.

My real purpose here this morning is to say well done.  I know that on days like today the focus is naturally on those who are perceived as winners, be that because they did well in their examinations, or on the sports field, or in their other extra-curricular activities.

But from my personal experience, as a pupil, an educator, a school manager and a parent, I know that congratulations are due to every boy regardless of whether they are the best at this or that.

The reason for that is simple.  Without all of you, there would be no Northwood.  It is my belief that unless you want to create a very unhealthy environment:

  • You cannot have a school that is purely composed of the academically gifted.
  • You cannot have a school is that purely focused on winning.
  • In the same way, you cannot have a rugby team made up solely of props, or a soccer or hockey team made up solely of strikers, or a cricket team which only has top batsmen.
  • You cannot have a theatrical cast of only leading characters, or a choir of only soloists.

And so even if the rugby team won fewer games than the hockey team, it doesn’t mean they didn’t work as hard.  The surfer or swimmer who practices for many hours, the incredibly talented casts from the Musical and Eastern Evenings, the First Aid team, the Boarding Establishment prefects, are just a sample of all who have done their school proud.

In our schools and in society more generally, we need people with a range of attributes and talents.


We need teams of people, working together, side-by-side, to achieve our collective and individual goals.  This takes courage, and Northwood attracts courage like a magnet.

Today’s top government schools remain a bastion of freedom in the school system of this country.  And no parent should ever feel guilty about upholding freedom of choice by supporting these schools – they are doing the best they can for their children.  Appreciate what you have, and defend it fiercely.

Today all schools are judged by their appearance in “league tables”.  Competing in educational league tables has become our new national sport.  U14 rugby rankings, top U15 batsmen per ball faced, average distinctions per candidate, percentage of learners achieving entrance to a degree course at university.  Where will it end?  I bet we are right up there in terms of left handed boys who have all of their own teeth, and who eat cereal for breakfast.  And I’m sure I can get a website to publish that if I tried.  But so what?  In the minds of others, we are the best at some things, and not the best at others.  Let them have their thoughts and their views.  Northwood is Durban North, and proudly so.  We represent the values of our community, expressed in an environment that means that Northwood is about the individual, and the individuals who make up the collective – not the other way around.


Children are our tomorrow – our future.  The bright faces that I see here today receiving prizes will be the fully-fledged citizens of tomorrow.  They may grow up to be Einsteins, Gandis, Mandelas perhaps, or if they are not careful, they may turn out to be a burden on society, stragglers waiting for someone to give them a job.  To grow up as good citizens one needs good values.  It is in our hands…in the hands of our schools, teachers and parents to instil those values.  While there should be a focus on excellence in academics, one should not forget that education does not mean mathematics or physics alone.  Education means intellectual, emotional, cultural and social development of a person.  One cannot develop a uni-dimensional person who is good in crunching numbers but does not know how to be a good neighbour.  It is not marks alone that make a man.  Love for the country and for people must be inculcated too.


So when you leave here Grade 12s, get ready for change.  Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor, claimed:  “We shrink from change; yet is there anything that can be achieved without it?  Do you not see then that change in yourself is no less necessary?”

So what traits do you need to have to deal best with this inevitable onset of change?  Think of an animal, I’ll give you the way that animal is perceived…the animal has

  • Intelligence
  • Wisdom
  • Knows it’s environment extremely well
  • Cunning
  • Strategic in thought
  • Quick-thinking
  • And adaptable

And perhaps you should be someone, like that animal, who people know and recognise, but they don’t quite know what you are going to say or do?

OESHE OESHE OESHE.  OESHE OESHE OESHE. (School War Cry, with boys responding)

To help me explain more about this animal, I’m going to bridge the generations by quoting from Ylvis.  Not that Elvis, the other Ylvis.  Now just listen to the depth of meaning, the complexity of the lyrics – they really are special.

Dog goes woof

Cat goes meow

Bird goes tweet

And mouse goes squeak


Cow goes moo

Frog goes croak

And the elephant goes toot


Ducks say quack

And fish go blub

And the seal goes ow ow ow ow ow


But there’s one sound

That no one knows

What does the fox say?


That particular Ylvis is a Norwegian duo who made the song and video that goes with it initially as a joke.  It’s called “What does the fox say?” – it went viral in September and has now had over 125 million views on You Tube.  And now every single one of you is sitting in the audience thinking, “I don’t actually know what a fox says!”


It’s the point really.  Our young foxes will need to be clever, adaptable, know what they’re in for, be cunning at times, and think quickly when they need to.


Let’s see if the class of 2013 fit the bill.  Foxes have slender muzzles and bushy tails.  Yep, I saw some of those on the way in today!  Physical characteristics can vary depending on location, particularly over a weekend or at Matric Rage.

Some foxes have large ears, some have small ears.  Teenage foxes, as many parents know, sometimes have no ears at all.

A fox can reach a speed of 48 km/h.  This is particularly true in first gear soon after getting their license.

Foxes can hold up to 1kg of meat in their stomachs.  Gone are the days of happy meals or the Spur kids menu.

Foxes can hear a watch ticking 40 yards away.  This is particularly useful for hearing the end of lesson bell long before the teacher does.

The secret of the fox

Ancient mystery

Somewhere deep in the woods

What is your sound?

Will we ever know?

It’s always been true – how will the next generation of our youth act, or react, and how will they determine their own future?  Think for example of the youth of 1976, who rose up to strike a blow to the firmly entrenched Apartheid regime of the day.

You have the chance to do what you want – take charge of your lives in a way you can’t do right now.  You can vote for the first time next year – a chance to influence the government of your country.  So many opportunities lie before you, make your mark, have your voice heard, do things your way – after you achieve to your full potential in the next six weeks of course!


We are a community and a society that wants change, because with change comes progress.  No matter what success is achieved one year, the desire to better what was achieved before is always there, burning bright.  In fact, success creates a burden of expectation which can often hamper performance.  Along with all that change, goes something very important indeed:  the need to have something to hold on to when all about you seems to be moving.  For us (and I speak as Northwood the personification of the Northwood Knight) that is the community where values are strong, and our boys are equipped with the qualities to understand the forces of change and successfully adapt to them.  The skills you will need are more than just the academic ones that are measurable; we are talking about respect for the individual; caring for and giving to others; determination in adversity; a willingness to seize opportunities and, above all, to work hard.


Sometimes you have to stop and think along the way though.  Let distractions refocus you on the objective, the goal, the path and direction.  But the path may change, as it has for me over the last year or so.  It may take you to destination unknown, or it may even take you full circle, as it has for Grant Bashford.  It will however always be YOUR path.

You have been led along this path by so many people so far.  Some are obvious, others less so.  The trees in the Northwood forest.  The teacher that you instantly connected with; the one who make you work in a way you just didn’t appreciate at the time.  The admin staff who do things daily around the school that you take for granted.  Mr Beukes and his staff that prepare our facilities so that they are the envy of all.

The school executive, the Board of Governors, the incredible support from the Old Boys and the Northwood network of sponsors and friends.  I thank them all – as will you when, somewhere in silence, you realise just what efforts have gone into giving you the advantages that coming from Northwood brings.

The academic staff, qualified and experienced professionals, do not just teach for the time from bell to bell.  They grow their knowledge all the time, ready to guide you, the cover in the forest that protects you before you emerge into the world beyond.

Often a forest conceals what is within.  A tactic of countless generals, to hide in the woods and spring upon an unsuspecting enemy.  And so, as you emerge from the forest of our education system, may you ride forward together as Knights, knowing that your strength together has prepared you for battle.


And the world doesn’t know what’s coming its way.  And we all look forward to the day that we find the answer, when it’s time to speak, what will the foxes say?

Thank you.


Mr P L McAvoy


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