For 15 years, Carol Burris has been the award-winning principal of South Side High School in New York’s Rockville Centre School District. She is stepping down for reasons she explained in this recent speech, saying that she could no longer participate in standardized test-based school reforms and educator evaluation systems that she feels are wrong. Burris just presided over her last graduation ceremony at South Side, and here is her speech.
Before she became principal in 2000, Burris taught at the middle and high school levels and earned a doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University. She was named New York’s 2013 High School Principal of the Year by the School Administrators Association of New York and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and was tapped as the 2010 New York State Outstanding Educator by the School Administrators Association of New York State. She has also written several books and numerous articles as well as posts on this blog chronicling the seriously flawed implementation of the Common Core standards and other school reforms in New York State.
Here, invoking Winnie the Pooh, is her last graduation speech as principal of South Side High:
Dear families, friends, colleagues and most of all, dear graduates,
Congratulations to all of you on this glorious day. This is my fifteenth address to a South Side graduating class and it has been, by far, the most difficult to write. Whenever I put my fingers to the keyboard, they simply would not move. Knowing it would be my last was giving me the most horrible case of writer’s block.
And then I walked down the math hallway and looked at a mural that put it all into perspective. It is a painting of four friends, holding hands, with the caption, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
The mural was painted by your classmates, Sarah Aronowitz and Ashley D Tullio. And that made it all the more special for me. Every zero period, I would climb the stairs at the end of the building, and I would find them sitting at the top with friends. I’d catch my breath and we’d exchange a good morning. I would joke that if Aronowitz were there in her chosen spot, I knew everything was right with the world.
“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
If you Google that saying, you will find that it is attributed to Winnie the Pooh. However, you will not find it in any of the books. So clearly what happened is Pooh said it Eyore, who texted it to Piglet, who tweeted it to Tigger, who then put it on his Facebook page. There is no other explanation. The words of the Grand Pooh Bear must be shared.
We are hardly the first to look to Winnie the Pooh for wisdom. In 1983, Benjamin Hoff wrote a book called “The Tao of Poo,” which used the bear and his friends to explain the Tao Te Ching to the Western world.
Winnie, according to Hoff, personifies the principle of Wu Wei, which roughly translates as “effortless doing.” It is a principle of harmony that teaches us that the course of our lives cannot be demanded nor rushed. You cannot make yourself find happiness—it will find you. Nor can you force yourself to love or be loved. Children develop uniquely and in their own time. As Pooh’s “Little Instruction Book” wisely observes: “Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there someday.”
This, of course, clashes with modern culture that assumes that everything can be willed, worked for or bought. But I stand with Pooh Bear –some things must in their own time unfold.
Right now your transition from dependence to independence is unfolding. And that is tough on your moms and dads. To them, you are still the kid in the Pooh Bear pajamas snuggled on their lap, begging for just one more story about Christopher Robin and his friends. When they tucked you in with your Tigger, they could protect you from harm. But the river, while in no hurry, bends today and you begin a new, more independent part of your life.
As hard as watching you grow up and move out is, your parents get it. They know their Winnie the Pooh. They understand what the “Little Instruction Book” is telling us when it says, “You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you.” They know that you have to walk down from your corner of the staircase, up the graduation aisle and out to meet all of the people and events that will shape your life’s journey.
Your classmate, Elaudy Diaz, in his Context piece entitled “A Message for Life,” reminds us all of the importance of self-acceptance, honesty and allegiance to those we love—the values you can always find on Pooh Corner. And although I’m not sure I agree with Winnie when he says “everything is honey,” if you value what matters, you’ll find that most of life is pretty darn sweet.
Class of 2015, I thank you for my four years with you. I believe in you. Now leave this school that you love, and share your goodness with the world. For as author Joseph Heller once said, and as I have advised graduates these past 15 years, “One good apple can spoil the rest.” And you, my dears, are all very good apples.
To you, and to my entire South Side family, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”