Graduation Remarks, 8 Grade Graduation, June 2007
Paul Cuffee School, Providence, Rhode Island
David Bourns, Head of School
Congratulations to you students, and thanks especially to you parents. If you are here this
morning, you had something important to do with this graduation, and you deserve to be
congratulated, so turn to your left and right and be congratulated.
You graduates will recall a photograph in Ms Wall’s room to the left of the door of a fellow
who is having a bad hair day. Remember him? Immigrant to the U.S., violin player, bicyclist, Nobel
Prize winner. That’s right, Albert Einstein.
He asked 2 important questions in his lifetime, but could answer only one of them for certain.
The first question: Does E=MC2? To this he answered “yes, E=MC2”. And with that he introduced the
atomic age and changed forever our understanding of time and space. Not bad for a guy who had a bad
hair day every day of his life.
But Mr. Einstein second question, maybe more important to von in the long run, he could
never answer to his satisfaction: Is this a friendly universe? You too will spend the rest of your lives
trying to answer this question. Is this a friendly universe? If you know nothing else after your time at
Paul Cuffee School, you know that your lives impose choices on you, and these choices impose
consequences on you and often on others. How you choose to live your lives will to a significant
degree determine your answer to Mr. Einstein’s question: Is this a friendly universe?
Now…if this is a friendly universe, you are all set. You clean up very nicely, even if you are
out of uniform today. At this school you have started swimming, sailing, drumming. basketball,
baseball, and track…and even jump roping. Your test scores are getting better and better. You know
some great teachers who will, I am sure, be glad to help you with your high school work. You have
begun to develop some good habits of mind, from your Odyssey, your Thrill Rides, and your Harlem
You are becoming thoughtful, honest, and reflective about resolving conflicts and seeking
workable solutions, rather than just striking out or hiding behind a couple of worn out words you think
your teachers want to hear. You have some great friends beside you for your future “you tube”
conversations. Occasionally I even see the beginnings of good table manners.
So I think you are good to go…if it’s a friendly universe—if this turns out to he a universe
that continues taking good care of you…Feeding you lunch every day with a Linda-smile, providing a
big yellow bus to chauffer you around all your life, good teachers, good friends, a guaranteed
allowance each week, medical benefits, the works. But in the event that your universe is not entirely
friendly (and I know that you do worry about this), let’s have a little more conversation before you go.
None of us knows what your future will bring. You are scattering now, all across the city next
year. Much in your lives will be a matter of luck—good luck and bad luck—even if you have the
wisdom and the courage to make good and wise decisions. We are really all gamblers in a game we do
not comprehend. We cannot prevent all had things from happening in our lives. We had 2 serious fires
in our families this year, one causing the death of one of our lower school parents. You know well that
violence happens, and it can damage and even kill the ones near us, and the ones we care about and
love. Several of you wrote about this in your “This I believe” papers. So what does one say at a time
like this when you are scattering to the winds?
Well, first of all, let me confess that I have seen that you are becoming wise about many
things, including some of the most important things to help you make your world friendlier.
I know this from your “this I believe” papers alone. In those papers you wrote about loyalty
and what it means and what it costs. Some of you wrote about your families, and how they are so very
important to you, and about how you will work to build strong families yourselves and work to respect
your own children and the children in your lives. You wrote about your fears of violence—violence in
the family, in the neighborhood, in our world. . .and how to deal with bullying and threats, and others
“talking junk” about you, and about how it feels to be disrespected by friends, or the police, and what
it feels like to be loved and respected.
You seem to understand that life is not fair much of the time, and some of one’s bad luck is
the result of someone else’s bad choices, or someone else’s pain, but you also talked about not judging
others because taking care of yourself is already a handful, and that’s enough; and you said it is more
important to work hard and not give up, even when the world is not friendly around you. “Follow your
deepest dreams”, you said.
So with all of your thoughtfulness, what is left for me to say? And maybe you are saving,
“Well, Mr. Bourns, there is not much left to say, so stop now.” But there is one thing left to say.
It is the same thing your parents say to you when you leave: Be careful! Now when your
parents say, “Be careful”, what do they mean? “Be careful” means...take care of yourself, starting the
moment you walk out of the door this morning. “Be careful” means that you must remember the sad
tale about OM Hubbard. You remember her, don’t you? I am sure you do if you think back. She was
the English animal rights activist who, like you was a caring person…but she did not take care of
herself, and her cupboard was empty when it really counted.
Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard to get her poor dog a bone
But when she got there, the cupboard was bare,
And the poor dog got none.
OM Hubbard’s kitchen cupboard was empty. Choosing to create a life for yourself, your own
life, is the ultimate act of courage. e.e. cummings, that poet who wrote great poems but could not get
his capital letters straight, wrote once that, “To be nobody but yourself in a world that is doing its best,
night and day, to make you everybody else—means to fight the hardest battle which any human being
People will try to make you into everything you can imagine. They will try to make you into a
burger-flipper, because it’s a great job and you can earn money for a souped up Honda. They will try
to make you into a drug user with promises that drugs will ease life’s unfriendliness. They will try to
make you into a soldier by glorifying comradeship and war. They will try to make you into a mediocre
student by accepting less than your very best. Someone will try to make you a teenage parent by
telling you how handsome or beautiful you are. So…be very careful!
Rule one: This means nothing fast. Do not quickly buy an ipod from anyone on the street who
is out of breath. Always think twice about anything fast. In fact, with the exception of Deny’s fast
breaks and Ariel’s fast pitches, nothing fast:
No fast cars
No fast sex
No fast guns
No fast fists
No fast alcohol
No fast drugs (any drugs)
No fast answers
No fast homework
No fast army recruiters (especially)
No fast food
These are all dangerous. Put a yellow police tape around them. They are all especially
dangerous in the next 8 years, while you are in high school and college. Two-thirds of them can kill
you, and they can all ruin your life. If you have to ignore my warning, choose fast food.
“Be careful” means continuing forever to develop those Habits of Mind on which you have
worked so hard. Your young bodies will begin to decline at 21 years, even if you do not notice it. So if
you have not yet been contacted by the NFL or the NBA, forget it—Focus on your Habits of Mind.
They are the powerful tools you will need, and like the axe or the plane or the chisel of the
woodworker, you must keep sharpening them and you must get better and better at using them.
W.E.B. Dubois started sharpening his mind in high school, and he never stopped. Look at what his
writing has done for you and others.
Jody Williams, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to stop the spread of land mines
across the globe from her little house in Vermont, had conquered those habits of mind. She was
passionate about making connections to save lives.
Nelson Mandela became a world leader in part because he used his 23 years in prison to
continue sharpening his mind, even with the scraps of newspaper that were used to wrap his
sandwiches as a way of learning about the world.
“Be careful” means working to make this a safe and friendly place, as you have begun to do
here at Paul Cuffee School. You and I are not safe until all people are safe because as you say, “what
goes around comes around.” The guns that leave the gun shops fire back. The missiles launched will
someday come back. And our country supplies three-fourths of the weapons that go out into the world.
“Being careful” means doing all we can to stop violence everywhere.
And so, my friends, “Be careful” means finally, recognizing in some deep, deep way that we are all
together in this life’s gamble, you and I and all the others near and far…recognizing as Marina Niemat
reminds us with her ancient Persian proverb in her new book, Prisoner of Tehran: “the sky is the
same color wherever you go.”
As you scatter out into your high schools, then your colleges, then into your careers and with
your new families and new friends, we will all be under this same sky with you. Help to make it a blue
sky for everyone. Help to make it friendly for yourself and for others near and far. I know you will do
If you need help with those papers or that math homework this fall, you know where to come.
Congratulations to you and your parents once again.