Pinocchio- Cum Laude Assembly

March 13, 2001
There’s a great metaphor at the heart of this fairy tale, the magic idea that a toy can come alive. The phenomenon is similar to what sometimes happened when we were little and playing with action figures, and our imagination helped them come alive for us.
Cum Laude Assembly March 13, 2001


I want to thank Mrs. Basson and the Cum Laude committee for inviting me to speak today. I am honored to share the stage with today’s Cum Laude initiates and their teachers. By definition, Cum Laude students have been successful in school. But it would be a mistake to believe that this happened mainly because they were somehow smarter than the rest of you. Their intelligence is part of what got them elected today, no doubt: but only part; a necessary, but not sufficient, condition. Today, I thought I’d use an old children’s story to help me describe some of the rest of what it takes to be the best student and person you can become.

Most of you will remember the story of Pinocchio, the wooden puppet who wanted to become a real boy. It was written by a fascinating man, Carlo Lorenzini, over a hundred years ago in Italy. The son of a cook and a servant, Lorenzini grew up in Florence and when he was young he fought as a soldier, first as a revolutionary in the revolt against the Hapsburg Empire in 1848 and later in a war between Italy and Austria. After the war, he became a journalist, and published a satirical magazine that got shut down by the Italian government. After he had a small success translating French fairy tales into Italian, he published his story Pinocchio as a serial story whose chapters appeared in the weekly newspaper in the 1880’s. Walt Disney made an animated movie out of Lorenzini’s story in the 1940’s, and it is still read to children today. Not bad for a poor boy who rebelled against the state. Kid must have been smart!

There’s a great metaphor at the heart of this fairy tale, the magic idea that a toy can come alive. The phenomenon is similar to what sometimes happened when we were little and playing with action figures, and our imagination helped them come alive for us. The story of Pinocchio starts when a man named Mr. Antonio picks up a common stick of wood that looked just right for the leg of a table he’s building. As he starts to strip the bark off with his sharp axe, a tiny voice from the wood begs the man not to hurt him, and the man starts to freak, looking all over the room for the source of the voice. Later, when he uses his plane to smooth out the rough spots, the wood starts to giggle and says, “Stop tickling me.” About that time, Mr. Antonio’s old friend Geppetto comes in the door looking for some wood to make a puppet, and a little later leaves with this magic piece of wood. Now just imagine if you were reading the Journal Sentinel and read a story that ended at this point, even if you didn’t keep reading the story, you would probably still be a little curious about what in the world would happen in next week’s installment.

The story of Pinocchio rambled on for two years in the newspaper, so I’m going to have to run through it quickly this morning to revive some of your memories. To simplify a bit, Geppetto longs for a son and carves the puppet Pinocchio out of the magic wood. Having a wooden head, Pinocchio is not too smart and extremely gullible. A little cricket Disney named Jiminny keeps trying to give good advice, but Pinocchio ignores it. He runs away from home repeatedly, and poor Geppetto constantly has to find him and get him out of trouble. One time Pinocchio even fell asleep with his feet against the wood stove and burned his feet off. Not exactly the Cum Laude type, I guess. Well, Geppetto is such a loving father, he sells his own coat to buy Pinocchio a primer so he can go to school and get smart. On the way to school the first time, Pinocchio gets distracted, sells the primer, and goes off to see a puppet show. He’s about to get kidnapped by the owners, but the puppet master takes a liking to him and even gives him five pieces of gold to take home to poor Geppetto. On the way, Pinocchio gets tricked by a shifty cat and a sly fox. They rob him and leave him for dead, but he is rescued by a beautiful blue fairy, who is like the mother he never had. When he lies to the fairy about what happened at school, his nose starts to grow. I’ll tell you, it was quite a ride to school in the days before car pools and school buses!

When our hero finally gets to school, what does he do but hang out with the dumbest kid in class, Lampwich. Together they cut school to go to Playland, which is a kind of Temptation Island from the days before MTV, when the bad things a child could get involved with were eating too much candy and breaking things. Well, this is fun for awhile, but then Pinocchio finds himself turning into a donkey. He is sold to a mean farmer, and then to the circus, but when he comes up lame doing a trick, he is thrown into the sea with a rock around his neck to drown. The farmer figures he can use his skin to make a drum. At the last minute, the good fairy hears Pinocchio’s call and sends a school of fish to eat his donkey flesh and turn him into a puppet again. Next, out of nowhere, a giant shark eats Pinocchio, but that’s a good thing because inside the shark he finds who else but Geppetto who had gone looking all over the sea out of love for his lost puppet and had also gotten eaten by the same shark. Pinocchio saves Geppetto by swimming to shore with his father on his back. He works from dawn to dusk to raise money to help the blue fairy get better, listens to the cricket, and in the end becomes a real boy.

OK, so where does this story take us and why tell it at a Cum Laude assembly? This is a children’s fairy tale about what it takes to become real. Being real starts when a piece of common wood feels pain and gives voice to it. The initiation to a more serious way of being alive and knowing the world begins with confusion, suffering, mistakes, longing, frustration. Everyone tells the puppet to just be a good boy, go to school do your homework be polite, but being good and even being successful in a mechanical, uncritical way is not the same as being smart or genuine or real. Pinocchio is immature: he gets tempted by superficial pleasures too easily and he succumbs to the fun, the giggly, way out all the time. He’s something of a phony—a puppet trying to be human. But he gets some patient, loving help. The good fairy teaches him he can become real, and not have to remain a puppet. His father shows him what self-sacrificing love means. The cricket tries to get him to think morally about his behavior. Still, it is not until Pinocchio sees that he and his friends are becoming donkeys, that he is shocked into beginning to see the world differently, from his own angle at last.

Even Pinocchio, made of magic, has to earn the right to become a real boy. He has to learn to experience life directly and make sense of it for himself. He begins to see with wiser eyes, and starts to make a distinction between easy pleasures and real satisfactions. He has to work hard to improve himself, develop new habits and determination because he can see he needs to. He has to realize that Geppetto loves him, and that he has the capacity to love and help others himself. He has to take responsibility for his own actions, and give of himself to help the people who help him. When he makes mistakes, he has to face up to them. In short, he has to become real.

I believe one of the most important parts of high school is learning to become real. I think that the best way to develop your own brand of intelligence is to start with what you feel deeply and give voice to it. Your best essays are not those in which you repeat back all the information you’ve found or been given. You do best when you take a stand, and establish and defend your own point of view. High accomplishment in art or science or mathematics involves more than mastering techniques. It comes when you have your own insight, and follow through on it.

I believe that our Cum Laude students are here because they have begun to learn how to go beyond the basics in their inquiry. They have started to find themselves through their studies. They are successful, in part because they are smart, and in part because they have worked at becoming real. Listen for their individual interests and passions when they speak.

When we celebrate them today, we celebrate the potential to be ourselves that each of us here has. As students and teachers, our main developmental task is to learn to use our unique human spirits to understand the world in our own way and to help one another. In the legend of Pinocchio, Lorenzini tells us even a wooden puppet can become real. Our Cum Laude students are good examples of people who have started on the lifelong path to becoming the best they can be. What makes this fairy tale a classic is that Pinocchio’s path is there, open to all of us.
And you know why you should believe me on this---because my nose is still short! Thank you.

First of all, being smart is not simply an IQ thing. In other words, I don’t believe people have a fixed inherent capacity for intelligence. This pernicious idea—that you only have so much intelligence and it can be measured on a scale--is responsible for a lot of damaging thinking, like the racist idea that certain groups are superior in intelligence to others. That’s just not true. People’s intelligence can grow, thank god. That’s one of the reasons we have schools, which should be environments that support the growth of intelligence and provide guidance to help young people grow into themselves. In human development, one of the times when people’s brains grow the fastest is actually during the high school years. Contrary to popular opinion, teenagers are literally getting smarter.

Now, being smart is a relative thing. Today’s initiates are among our top students at USM. But the truth is that everyone in this room could be a top student if he or she attended a different school. You all are smart in many different ways or you wouldn’t be here. Today’s initiates are second semester seniors, a time when some faculty suspect that, for certain individuals, the process of brain growth temporarily comes to an end, or reverses. Six months from now starting in college, the confident senior may not feel so smart. I remember going off to college myself, a boy from the Midwest unnerved by being in an Eastern school. Compared to my roommates, compared to the school’s reputation, I couldn’t help but feel like an imposter there. I was used to A’s and B’s in high school; I figured myself for a C+ in college. So, I’ve always found something lacking in the idea of someone just being smart.

I mean, you can be smart at some things and not smart at others. There are many kinds of intelligence—logical, verbal, interpersonal, visual, musical, physical, mechanical, etc. If you’re in one kind of environment that favors a certain type of intelligence that you’re good at, you have an advantage, you’re going to do well. Similarly, if you’re good at something your school doesn’t reward or value, you’re at a disadvantage, you may get frustrated. That’s why we have so many kinds of activities and classes here, so you can explore your own aptitudes and find your strengths. In short, to say that our Cum Laude initiates are smart is a complicated statement. There’s more than being smart involved in achieving well.
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