Speech Day’s afternoon proceedings were once again opened by our new Chair of Governors Elizabeth Harrison, who offered a nuanced perspective on the day informed by her varied experiences as both pupil, parent and governor. Although acknowledging the formality of the occasion, Mrs Harrison was keen to stress that at its core this was a day of celebration; an opportunity to enjoy all that the girls had done over the year and a chance to thank our staff and parents for their unwavering faith and commitment.
Echoing these sentiments, Head of the Senior School, Jan Cresswell, extended her welcome to our former Upper VI, and reflected specifically on the learning to be taken away from last year’s production of Beauty and the Beast. A story of a woman staying true to herself, Belle has her own voice, shows courage in helping her father and, above all, epitomises honesty and kindness in all her dealings with Beast. Belle is, in other words, a true Abbey girl: faced with an uncertain world, she speaks her mind and models the change she wishes to see. With strong foundations to depend on, Mrs Cresswell urged the girls to do the same and be the change that means we can look forward to the world ahead with optimism.
Adding her thoughts, Head of The Abbey, Rachel Dent, took a moment to reflect on the dual significance of this Speech Day. Noteworthy not only for falling in our 130th year, for Mrs Dent this Speech Day was of particular importance as a book-end to a year that had allowed her to see through a different telescope; as parent of a daughter during GCSEs. Having experienced first-hand the boundless support of the staff, the incredible patience of parents and the exceptional results of our hardworking, good-humoured girls, Mrs Dent impressed upon the audience the truly outstanding nature of The Abbey community and the privilege she felt in ensuring the school is still leading the way in girls’ education in another 130 years.
As a poignant closing thought to her welcome, Mrs Cresswell had left us with the following quote: ‘There’s been a kind of change in me, a kind of moving on. Though what I used to be I still depend on…And I never thought I’d leave behind my childhood dreams, but I don’t mind. For now I love the world I see – no change of heart, a change in me’.
These words, sung by Belle in Beauty and the Beast, were very much at the heart of a powerful speech given by guest speaker and alumna Dr Tessa Baker at this afternoon’s Speech Day. Reflecting on her experiences at school, university and now in her work as a field-leading cosmologist, Tessa urged the girls to have confidence in their core self, to embrace challenge and to welcome the positive change this can produce in themselves and the world around them.
Just back from a scientific conference in the Netherlands, Tessa began her speech by impressing upon the girls our immense capacity to change in ways we might once have thought unimaginable. At school, Tessa revealed the pinnacle of her stage career to have been as a live prop in House Music and Drama. Fast-forward 10 years and Tessa finds herself standing one day in front of an audience of astrophysicists discussing black holes, space time and gravitational waves, and the next in front of the Abbey community at our Speech Day. Her message for the girls was clear: although at times things may seem impossible, they should take comfort in the knowledge that they are at this very moment building the foundation of a skills pyramid that will enable them to go on to develop in a myriad of ways.
Indeed, Tessa was keen to stress to the girls that the path is not always easy nor obvious. Quick to dispel romantic notions that she had always wanted to be a cosmologist, Tessa revealed that she initially did not take Maths or Physics at A Level due to the fear that she was not ‘good enough’. On realising that she had under-estimated herself, Tessa switched subjects and, with the support of her teachers, went on to achieve her desired results. History repeated itself at university when, on being told that the course she wished to take was the hardest and most challenging on offer, she was scared off, so regretting the decision that she ended up teaching herself the module at home. Having finally learned to trust in her abilities, Tessa now finds herself dubbed a ‘Woman of the Future’, studying some of the largest questions about our universe: How did everything begin? How fast is it expanding? What is its future?
Tessa’s message for the girls was thus to not be intimidated. There will always be times when they are faced with challenge and will wonder whether they are ‘good enough’. When these moments arise, Tessa asked the girls to listen to themselves and, as confident women with exceptional training, to not be afraid and take these challenges head-on.
Thank you, Tessa, for your inspiring words, and to our entire Abbey community for coming together to celebrate our girls.