24 November 2014

Tim Nel (Class of 2003) – Guest speaker at Founders’ Day

Tim Nel (Head Boy in 2003) was the guest speaker at the 2013 Founders’ Day ceremony. Here is his speech:

It is very strange to be up here – ten years after I left school – it’s a bit surreal. It reminds me of going back to Rhenish Primary School when I was in Matric – any of you Rhenish guys will know what I am talking about. You go back in matric, for a day, and look at the school with a completely new set of eyes:  the locker that you had to get a box out to stand on to reach your books; that long pole that you had to use in the class in order to close the high windows if you were the tallest person in the class. I wasn’t. The same headmaster… in the same tie… in the same suit… The moment I thought about it hit me: so much had changed in my own life, but everything at Rhenish had somehow stayed the same.

But walking around Somerset College today, ten years after I left this magical place, going out to the scary world of university, marriage, taxes, children, education funds, taxes, grandchildren, retirement and pensioner’s discounts at the movies – I don’t feel the same. I feel that things have changed, that this school, unlike so many schools around the country, and around the world, has moved with the current. Many of the buildings, and some of the legendary founding teachers, are still here but it’s in a new place. It’s energised. It’s relevant.

And 10 years is a long time, believe me. When I was in Matric they still called Grade 8 ‘Standard Six’. The biggest films of the year were Finding Nemo, The Matrix, and Fast and Furious. Now it’s “Still Too Fastest and Even More Furiouster #Yolo Bieber One Direction Episode 11″. Eminem had just bust out an edgy tune called “Lose Yourself” – which, for you guys, is probably elevator music or something Mr Walters plays in the library. I got my first cell phone in Matric – epic. It was a Nokia 5110, communicator. That’s right. That thing could communicate – 140 characters, predictive text – and boom, Snake. I was the heat.

That time at Somerset College was a very special one.  My year in particular seemed to be perfectly placed in terms of the development of the school. When I arrived in Grade 8, it was the first year that the school had Matrics. I know – it sounds crazy – but there they were – all 20-odd of the first Somerset College Matrics. Also that year was the first Somerset College Trek – the remarkable rite of passage that this school pioneered, and that so many others try in vain to copy. The Cow Shed was no longer a shed with cows in it, but the French Department – and things were really starting to happen. 

I remember sitting down on a bench in the Library – that’s where we had assembly before the hall was here (what’s now the hall was just mud, really) – sitting in the library in shoes that were way too white and way too big for me – listening to our new Headmaster, Mr Wynne, welcome us to what was going to become the most wonderful school in the world. 

I remember him teaching us the school song, and not really noticing that he was so close to the microphone when the group started singing that he might as well have been singing a solo. But my word, did he sing. And he told us that a school that sings is a school with soul. And while Somerset College – at that time – did not have the numbers, or facilities, or traditions of other schools with longer histories, there was something here that was alive then that I still can feel walking around this place – and it’s hard to put a finger on it – but I think it feels like Opportunity, Promise, Possibility. 

This school is changing all the time, significantly so this year with Mrs Fargher taking the reins from Mr Nuttall. Welcome, Mrs Fargher, to the Somerset College family on behalf of all of the Old Oaks. For the Matrics at the back – a whole lot is going to change for you over the next few months. Change is what happens, it is not something to fear, it is something to embrace. From my short stint thus far in the real world, it’s the people who expect change that are the ones who are taking it to the next level. 

Your parents lived in a very different time to us, as did their parents before them. You used to apply for a job, and if by age 28 you’d already had 5 different jobs they would say “Oh no – you can’t hire this person – they’re a job hopper – we need reliability!” Now if you apply for that same job they’d say “He’s only had five jobs – he needs some more exposure before we hire him!” Eight of the top ten jobs in demand in the USA today did not exist in 2002. India has more ‘A’ students than the USA has students. There are 31 billion Google searches a month. Who did we ask before then? Altavista baby, Network Navigator. It’s changed. A lot.

So if you hit the world out there without the ability to adapt what you can do and what you can offer, you will soon have a skill set that is no longer in demand, or no longer relevant. You will see that what you study at University – if you go that route – is not as important as the fact that you studied; that you learned something complex and difficult; and that you persevered. And, that you continue to learn, to be inspired, and create. 

The Somerset College student in the outside world – the Old Oak – is not hard to spot, and I can tell you this having lectured over 1000s first years at Stellenbosch University. And I know this is testament to the teachers, and the founders of this school, inspired by that man, Dave Wynne (who – if you don’t know him, is Mrs Wynne’s husband!) Mr Wynne is without question, still the vigorously beating heart and soul of this school, and the reason why Somerset College has become such a success. I have been lucky enough to have him as a mentor.  It was he who persuaded me at the last minute to not follow all the advice to study something sensible, but rather to go for something that would inspire me, and if you all do that, I guarantee you, you will never looked back.

Out in the world, you recognise a Somerset College person – not because they tell you (that’s the Bishops ones) – but because of a quiet confidence; the ability to share an opinion without forcing it upon you. A self-belief that never falls into arrogance but most importantly, when a challenge lies ahead, you recognise them for their ingenuity.  College students are inventive, they make things happen with the resources they have, and don’t sit back and moan that they were not given enough to complete the task.

And this goes back to where this incredible school came from.  We didn’t have all the kit, we were constantly the underdog. In some sports or some aspects of what you all do now – you will still know what I am talking about. We don’t have 11 rugby teams or 23 hockey teams to draw from, or R150 000 for a matric dance – but when we meet a challenge that is, on paper, impossible, we believe. And we do. I read the newsletters. You guys are doing it. We are on the map. Old Oaks, Matrics, Grade 11s – you put us there – you guys are going to keep putting us on better maps. Google maps. And even as our facilities improve and our numbers grow – let us never lose the mindset of being the underdog – because that is what keeps us humble when we achieve great things, and that is what keeps us hungry, and ambitious, and resourceful. 

That is why so many Somerset College people continue to make successes of their lives in an economy, a country and a world where we – young people, white people, black people, South Africans – are the underdogs. It is so important – it is all-important – because underdogs find a way to make it happen, and they are hungry and they remember what it’s like to be Number 2, even when they are at the top of their game. 

This school has given you the chance to learn this. It has taught you – better than any school out there – how to continue to learn and stay relevant in a changing world. It has forced you to be humble – probably one of the most widely loved characteristics – and, whether it’s a can of bully beef or an outdated map on the Trek when all you want to do is find camp – it has taught you to use what you’ve got to make a success. You may not know it now, but it is something you will realise in time – and when you do, you’ll dig it. 

I encourage you to not rush through this place – devour your time here. Be selfish with it and guard it carefully, because it forms the fabric of who you are – and your parents have given you a great gift in choosing this place as your platform to launch. When you do go from here, come back – as a coach, at a reunion, as an Old Oak – these are roots that connect many fascinating people in a worldwide network that we’d love you to be a part of. 

Man, I love this place – as much as ever, and I look forward to meeting you out there in the world.”