Set the world on fire

On 3rd December James was invited to present GCSE certificates at his old school. As a part of this James reflected on his time at the school and the influence of others. The text of his speech has been adapted slightly but can be found below:

I am so grateful to have been invited here tonight to what is, essentially, my old school. Life has changed a lot since I left here over 25 years ago. Not least of which is the impressive building that we find ourselves in tonight. I too have changed. As I drove in tonight I passed a house two doors away from the entrance where, as a teenager, I used to be the gardener on a Saturday morning- that was actually a posh term for weeding and picking up rubbish. I look back on the intervening years and I think of how life has changed and all of the wonderful experiences that I have had; I’ve had the opportunity to go to University and now I have people call me Doctor, I have been a teacher first of all in schools and now in a University, and for me, most importantly, I have been married to my wife for 21 years and am the father to four wonderful children. All of this has been possible because of the influence of man y wonderful people throughout my life.

There is a line in my favourite musical, Wicked, that says:

Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? But because I knew you. I have been changed for good.

Every time I hear this line, it makes me reflect on those people who I have known who have had a lasting impact on my life. Those people who because I have known them, I have been changed forever. If I use a couple of examples from my own life to illustrate this.

When I first met my wife Ruth I was 19, and having just returned home from a mission for my Church where I had worn suits for two years I had the fashion sense of a 17 year old who was two years out of date. I had Garfield t-shirts, Bermuda shorts, and other disturbing items in my wardrobe. Over a few months, and with certain gifts from Ruth, my wardrobe changed. I no longer wore, and still don’t today wear comic book t-shirts. But Ruth has changed me in so many other ways, her kind heart and compassion has made me much more aware of how I treat other people, and the impact that my words can have on others.

As I think of others I think of my mum and certain teachers. My mum is amazing- at the age of 23 she was left a widow with two young sons to care for and look after. She had O levels but not many other qualifications because she hadn’t been allowed to stay at school, she needed to get out and start earning some money. As a child I didn’t know that we lived in difficult circumstances or that life had dealt my mum a harsh set of cards. I knew that I was loved; I also knew of the value of hard work as my mum worked in a series of jobs that enabled her to be there for us- as a bar maid or as a care assistant. I was also taught that I could achieve anything that I wanted to- the sky was the limit, or at least that is what my mum taught me. I often tell a story that I have never had the opportunity to test- apparently if you put fleas in a jar with no lid they jump out. I think that’s fairly obvious. If you put them in a jar with a lid then they would still try and jump out but they would be prevented by the lid. Again, no real surprise there. However, if you then take the lid off the fleas only jump as high as the level of the lid- they have been taught that they can’t go any higher. There was no lid placed on my imagination. The same should be said of you; you are sixteen or seventeen years old and the world is your oyster. The decisions you make today will determine what you will be doing next year, and the year after that and they year after that. St Catherine of Siena once said: ‘Be who you are created to be and you will set the world on fire’- I hope that you will be true to yourself and hopes and dreams so that you can set the world on fire.


This does not mean that life is without its setbacks. As a child there were many things that seemed to work against me though I never realised them at the time. I am blind in one eye which apparently means I am no good at catching but no one ever told me that and so I loved to play cricket and was a goalkeeper through most of my school life. Up until the age of about five or six only my older brother could understand a word I was saying; and as such my reading age was far below what it should have been. However, I remember one year in particular where my mum and my teacher- Mr Starkey worked together- I began to speak with the help of a speech therapist that my mum took me to every week despite it being an hour away on the bus, and my reading age increased as I had a teacher who didn’t judge me on what he saw in front of him but took an interest in me and worked patiently with me. It didn’t hurt that he was amazing in other ways- threatening to tear my arm off and hit me with the soggy end when I made a mistake, or dangling my friend over the toilet threatening to drop in him because he had done something wrong. It will be no surprise to you that it was that year at the age of 6 that I decided I wanted to be a teacher!

I had a fantastic childhood, I was full of life, confident and enjoyed many different things. However, as I began secondary school there were other voices which told me I was rubbish; that I was worthless; that what I had to say was not worth listening to; and I would never amount to anything. This continued for a period of about three years, and for some reason despite others who said differently these people were the ones I believed. Some of these words still echo in my mind as I encounter new situations, and to be honest some of the reasons why I push myself to do new things is to prove to myself that these things were not right. It was at the point in my life- at the age of 14 that I came here- to what was then Henbury High School. It was here that I began to rediscover myself and some confidence within myself with the help of my mum and my friends. One person in particular stands out- some of your parents may remember him- he was my RE teacher- Mr Banks. I don’t know if he ever realised the effect that he had on my life. I have to admit that prior to coming here I hated RE- the only reason I took it at GCSE was because I hated geography more. Mr Banks, however, was an inspiration- first of all as a human being and then as a teacher. I recaptured my desire to be a teacher from him, but he opened up the world of RE to me and helped me realise that there were things that I was good at. He again, had a sense of humour that engaged my teenage personality. The thing that stands out to me though is that he believed in me, and that he loved all of students. It was always with great delight when I would go to Macclesfield Town matches as an adult and as I stood in the McAlpine stand see him directly across stood near the dugouts. I wish I could let him know the influence he had.

Why do I reminisce so on a night to celebrate your achievements? For two reasons; firstly, without the support and belief of loved ones, parents, carers and teachers this night would not be possible. Secondly, that no matter who you are or where you are now you have the potential to set the world on fire; you have the potential to make a difference to the world. My favourite film is ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’- in this film George wonders why he was ever born; he thinks he has made no impact in the world. His angel in training Clarence shows him what the world would have been like without him. The world itself might not be too different, but his local community would have been. We are like George, we may not have an impact on the whole world, but we can have an impact on all of those around us and in our locality, and who knows we may just set the world on fire.

As you sit and listen you may think that this doesn’t apply to you- but it surely does. Let me finish with a quote from Marianne Williamson:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Whatever metaphor we use about your potential- you have been born to shine, to set the world on fire, to fly- tonight is just a step on your path to becoming. I don’t know what you are in the process of becoming but I do know that the choices that you make today and the people you allow to influence you will determine who you will be. This is not the end but an important step in you becoming…..

Thank you once again for having me here tonight, it is a huge privilege; congratulations and good luck as you strive to become who you were meant to be.