Head of school Prizegiving address by Deanne King 16 October 2015

Good evening, Mr Frederick Swaniker, Mr Nigel Carman, members of the school Board, teachers, parents, friends and St Mary’s girls.

Happiness is a common pursuit for human beings but it is a state that is often elusive. It certainly is a state that we pursue at St Mary’s. Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, identified three elements of happiness: positive emotions, engagement and meaning. He, like Victor Frankl, believes that humans want meaning and purpose in life. In other words, serving something that you believe is bigger than the self. This does not guarantee happiness, but it is difficult to find happiness unless you feel that what you are doing is significant. 

A school plays a significant role in providing a foundation on which life is built. St Mary’s has been such a school for many generations of women, and it has never ventured from its original purpose of educating girls within the Christian Anglican tradition. The purpose and character of our school are inextricably linked with our name. The founders opened St Mary’s School with the purpose that it would be a school to educate girls in the way of Mary, and to further God’s work and purpose in what was then a mining camp but now, this city. As Mary trusted God and gave herself to faithfully follow God’s plan for her, so do we live out this charism of Mary and faithfully follow our purpose – to educate women.

Remaining true to purpose is not easy, especially in the competitive, independent education sector with heightened parental expectation, and in a world of rapid change and increasing secularism. A school can become distracted by these pressures, together with the need for recognition and the search for excellence at the expense of some. We have to check ourselves often and continually realign our focus. Revd Gill referred to a favourite verse of mine in her sermon at the staff Eucharist that started the term, Jeremiah 29:11: “I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” It is for us, in these uncertain and complex times, to trust God’s plan for our school and to continue to work diligently to fulfil our educational potential.

This purpose of ours plays out in the programme that we offer. Academic rigour and innovation guide us in curriculum, teaching and learning. St Mary’s has always believed in the challenge of a demanding co-curricular programme because it enhances character development: it encourages self-belief and expression and it teaches one to collaborate, all of which better equip individuals for the workplace. We have also placed emphasis on community and working for society, because this places value on citizenship and tolerance. We are proud of our programme and our purpose in educating resilient women. But as the world changes around us, so must we bravely embrace the changing trends in global education, which seek to create scholars who have the courage to fail in their attempts to create and search for solutions – an approach that may be problematic, when the influential culture in which we work sees failure as failure. Our challenge is to see failure as learning. This philosophy of learning crystallised for me at the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools conference in June, when listening to Amy Lietke, Professor of Industrial Design, Rhode Island School of Design. Her message was that scholars and students need to be good at failing, they need to learn to fail often, and fail forward – failing is a positive thing when creating and looking for solutions.  

My concern for St Mary’s is that if our girls seek only achievement and recognition in academics, sport or cultural activities, the purpose of these endeavours is undermined. Education, involvement and participation should not be focused on achievement, but on personal development and growth. True excellence lies in doing the best you can, living your life the best you can. It does not lie with collecting awards and external affirmation, but rather in living out your purpose, God’s purpose for you. It is important for us as a school to celebrate individual and team achievement. This may come in the form of our squash girls winning the Top Schools’ Squash Tournament, but just as important is celebrating the uncertain girl who plucks up the courage to join the chess club. St Mary’s purpose can ultimately only be fulfilled if the young women who leave here are confident, if they have a sense of self, integrity and a deep respect for all humanity.    

The purpose of this school is you, girls, and providing you with a significant foundation from which to make your way into the world. Graça Machel, speaking at the fifth anniversary of the Ruth First Jeppe Memorial Trust, said, “Our schools [have to be the place where] every South African is accepted and valued regardless of race, regardless of gender, regardless of class, regardless of ideology.” This is the spirit of Ruth First, who saw human dignity as the common denominator of everyone. If you leave this school knowing what it is to be a good citizen, and you are ready to contribute to society and work for the freedom and dignity of all, then you have honoured the purpose of our school and its values of love, community and integrity. 

I have been encouraged this year by the significant growth in the girls’ interest and willingness to engage in school functioning and governance. There is a growing awareness among the girls of the reality outside these gates, and the global issues of this century. The Student Representative Council has come of age and it makes a valuable contribution to daily policy and change at St Mary’s. The GIRLS association has also tackled controversial topics with sensitivity and maturity. It would seem that the leadership programme has played a positive role in creating an aware and brave pupil body, which is a boon to preparation for tertiary studies. 

Twenty-sixteen will see the opening of our fifth boarding house. Woodwinds has for many years loomed large next to the AstroTurf, and next year it will accommodate 12 girls. Our boarding is a dynamic aspect of St Mary’s and it continues to grow, while the boarders form an influential part of the pupil body. They inject spirit and stability that ultimately contribute to a productive and happy environment. They are fully involved in school life and often lead in the initiatives that I have mentioned.

The class of 2015 has been successful in leading positively in all aspects of school life. I extend my sincere gratitude to Bongiwe Bongwe, Roxanne Lowe and Loren Page, who have led the school with maturity and grace this year. To all the matriculants, you have made a lasting impression on us all through your commitment, diligence, maturity and your adept balancing of work and play. As you begin to seek out your personal purpose I encourage you to heed the message in the poem Invictus, written by William Ernest Henley: “I am the master of my fate/ I am the captain of my soul.”

The cycles of life, the coming and going, present continual change for our school and perhaps even challenge our steady course, but this is firmly held by the highly motivated and professional teaching staff at St Mary’s. Not only are the teachers committed to helping each girl unlock her potential, but they continually strive to enhance and present a better educational experience. The ideal of a learning community is very much their goal. We are supported in this endeavour by excellent members of staff who oversee administration, finance and operations. I also extend gratitude to the Board, which guides the school with expertise and wisdom. The activities and projects and accomplishments of our school and the pupils are well recorded each year in newsletters, brochures, Distinctions and the school magazine. They present the varied days and vibrant and colourful life at St Mary’s.

On reflection, St Mary’s is a happy school. One indicator of this is the length of service of many individuals. This year we bid farewell to Kendra Hendry and Pippa McKechnie, and there are four other members of staff who retire. Freddie Maluleke retires after 46 years at St Mary’s, and Jack Mahloko after 32 years. I thank these gentlemen for their loyalty and commitment to our school. Lynn Marais has taught at St Mary’s for 26 years. She is one of the most passionate teachers that I know, and she loves this school dearly. I have valued her support and her commitment to our standards and ethos. Revd Gill Lee also retires. Gill joined St Mary’s in 1990 and has served in a number of influential roles. Since 2010 she has been chaplain. Gill’s influence has been significant, and she leaves a legacy of sincere, relevant and joyful worship in our school.   

Deanne King

Head of school