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Not waving but drowning

To enable students to understand that it is important to share our deepest feelings.

by Paul Hess

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To enable students to understand that it is important to share our deepest feelings.

Preparation and materials

  • You may wish to play and quote from the song ‘Nobody Knows’, by the Toni Rich Project, as an introduction to the assembly (or you could use Smokey Robinson’s ‘Tracks of my Tears’). The lyrics to both songs (available online) illustrate very well the theme of the assembly: the veneer we construct to hide our true feelings.

  • You will need the poem ‘Not Waving But Drowning’ by Stevie Smith


  1. Read out the poem ‘Not Waving But Drowning’ by Stevie Smith.
  2. On numerous occasions today – 10, 15, 20 – you and I will be asked how we are by someone we encounter in or out of school. On nearly all those occasions, we will utter a standard response: ‘I’m fine’, ‘I’m cool’. And of course most of the time that is entirely the appropriate response. When an acquaintance asks you ‘All right?’ as they pass you in the corridor on the way to third period, it is not generally the time to say, ‘Well no, actually I feel overpowered by a black cloud of depression and I just don’t see the point of existence!’
  3. But all of us do need a space, a safe place, where we can be ourselves and where we can be honest about how we really feel. Such a place may be with your family or with a close friend. It may be that you need to find such a place with the school counsellor. (There is an opportunity here to advertise the school counsellor or whatever other confidential pastoral services your school offers.)

    Whoever we confide in, all of us need a place where we don’t have to wear a mask or play a role – where we don’t have to act the clown or the joker, or the hip-hop gangsta or the hard rugby lad or the ultra-chic super model.
  4. Very often we create these personas to protect ourselves – both from other people and from the pain inside ourselves. In doing so, we can become like the person in Stevie Smith’s poem: someone who gives the impression of being fine, of someone who is ‘waving’ (‘yeah, I’m fine, no problem’) when they are actually drowning; that is, when you are feeling unhappy, depressed or anxious. If we continually pretend everything is fine when it is not, we risk becoming isolated and alone – and ultimately we will be unable to cope with all the demands and pressures of life.
  5. At the heart of the Christian faith, indeed at its very beginning, is the idea of the God who created us, and thus who knows us better than we know ourselves. Christians believe that it is in their relationship with God that they can truly be themselves. In prayer we don’t have to wear a mask or pretend – we can be totally honest and open. When we are with God, we can admit to being vulnerable.

    May each of us find, in our relationship with God and our relationships with other people, a place where we can truly be ourselves, where we can be totally honest.

Time for reflection


O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.

You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.

(Psalm 139)


Lord, you know us better than we know ourselves:

give us the grace to acknowledge our weakness and vulnerability. 

Thank you that although sometimes we feel alone, you are always with us. 


Publication date: September 2008   (Vol.10 No.9)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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