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End of term

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)

Aims

To reflect on the past term, time and our responsibilities.

Preparation and materials

  • You will need a leader and three readers.
  • Have available the song 'Slow train coming' by Bob Dylan and the means to play it at the end of the assembly.

Assembly

Leader  In the film The Matrix, humans don't live, they simply exist, floating in jelly-like pods, with their brains plugged into a computer. Nothing really happens to them. Their lives consist of fantasies generated by the computer. In fact, the computer can rewrite history, erasing the past and constructing alternative histories. 'Life' is simply a web of unreality.

Reader 1  Here's another science fiction story to think about. Imagine it's the last day of term. You run to the school gates, but, just as you are about to go through, you find yourself running backwards. You go back into school and take your coat off. You sit and look at a page of writing. You run your pen across the page, starting at the bottom and, as it moves, it sucks up the writing like a vacuum cleaner. You are left with a blank piece of paper.

Reader 2  So then you go backwards through the rest of the day, uncreating everything you've done. At last, though, it's time to go home. You cycle home backwards. You open your mouth and take a forkful of food out. You keep doing it until the plate is filled with food. Then you put the food back in the pans, then back in the cupboard and fridge.

Reader 3  Your teeth are clean. Surely they don't need another brush? Neverthless, you find yourself going to the bathroom and giving them a good scrub. When you've finished they are dirty. Your hair, though, is tidy, but, next, your hand picks up a brush and messes it up until it looks like a scraggy haystack. Then you take your deodorant and take it off your underarms. You now look and smell horrible. You look at yourself, bleary-eyed – yuck! Then you walk backwards to bed. You sink into a deep sleep. This is a nightmare, you think, as your brain switches itself off.

Leader  Don't worry, that's probably not going to happen. It's a horrifying idea, though, isn't it? The modern British novelist Martin Amis wrote a whole novel like this – Time's Arrow – which starts at the end of the story and progresses back to the beginning.

Reader 1 An old man emerges 'out of the blackest sleep'. Doctors strap heart-attack equipment on his chest. He's no longer dead, but he feels very old and ugly. He has no friends. You feel sorry for him.

Reader 2  Then he moves into a big house and finds he has a job. He's a doctor. His body starts to ache less. His bald head sprouts hair. He has friends. At night, though, he has nightmares. One day he gives up his job and finds himself running away. He moves from America back to Europe. The world is in chaos. He has to hide.

Reader 3  Then comes the horror of the book. He finds himself marching into a concentration camp – not as a prisoner, but as one of the doctor-guards who carry out unspeakable 'experiments' on the prisoners. There's nothing he can do to stop it.

Leader  Time's Arrow is a very frightening book. It's frightening because, although time can be wound backwards, it can't be changed. What's done is done, replayable but fixed forever. As in Bob Dylan’s song 'Slow train coming', the rails are fixed and the train moves inexorably along them.

In some religions – Buddhism and Hinduism, for example – time flows in endless cycles. In others, though – such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam – each individual has only one life. When you've used it up, it's gone and that's it. Forgiveness is possible, but changing things isn't.

This is perhaps why, in those religions that believe in just one life, time is often set aside for reflection – the past can't be changed, but the future is open. Mistakes in the past need not be repeated. The Methodist Church, for example, begins the year with a Covenant Service, in which the events of the past year are reviewed and the people recommit themselves to the ideals of their religion and God.

People often make New Year’s resolutions – not to eat as much chocolate, visit elderly relations more often and so on. Today isn't the end of the year, but it is (nearly) the end of term, so perhaps it's an appropriate time for something similar. Don’t worry, at the end of the day, time won't flow backwards – you'll be able to leave school and go home!

Your future is open, but quite what you make of it depends on how you look back over your shoulder at the past.

Time for reflection

Let's be quiet and think about things that have happened over the past term.

Remember all the times that have been good. Maybe a brilliant goal that you scored. Maybe a really good time that you had with your friends. Maybe the surprise that you felt when you found you'd got 99 out of 100 in a maths test. What else can you think of?

Remember, too, things that have made you unhappy. Perhaps the time you said something mean to a friend. The time you fouled someone deliberately in a football match. The time you failed to revise, got caught trying to copy and still got only 13 out of 100 in an English test. What is the least good thing that you did last term?

What can you do to make sure that these things don't happen again next term? How can you make things better? 

Follow-up activity

  1. This assembly tries to lead in to the concept, important in Western religions, of 'judgement'. This is often avoided in RE, but its importance – and power – are difficult to overestimate. Look at some images of the Last Judgement, such as:

    – Michelangelo's frescoes of the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel at: www.kfki.hu/~arthp/tours/sistina/lastjudg.html
    – Hieronymous Bosch's fantastic and frightening images at: www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/bosch/judge
    – Stanley Spencer's wonderful images of a healing resurrection, without condemnation, at: www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ArtistWorks?cgroupid=999999961&artistid=1977&page=1
    – an anthology of medieval images at: www.paintedchurch.org/doomcon.htm

    Talk about what's going on in these pictures. Think about what a modern depiction of the Last Judgement might be like – who would be the goodies, the baddies? Design and paint your own image.

  2. Listen more carefully to tracks from Bob Dylan's album Slow Train Coming (information about the album and audio downloads can be easily found on the Internet). A quiet song about judgement is 'When he returns'. Ask the students what they think. When the album came out, it was pilloried, partly because it was Christian, partly because of the emphasis on judgement, with lyrics such as 'Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you're gonna have to serve somebody' or 'Ya either got faith or ya got unbelief and there ain't no neutral ground' in the song 'Precious angel'.

  3. What is the 'slow train'? The image is found in many Gospel songs.

  4. Look at the cover of Bob Dylan’s album Slow Train Coming. Perhaps the pupils could design another of their own, having thought about the lyrics of the songs.

Music

'Slow train coming' by Bob Dylan 

Publication date: July 2014   (Vol.16 No.7)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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