A talk given at the Winter Honor Roll Assembly.

Sisyphus was one of those unfortunate mortals who displeased the Greek gods, different versions of the myth giving different explanations of his exact crime. At any rate, Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to roll a huge boulder up to the top of a hill, the catch being that whenever the boulder neared the summit, it would roll all the way back down again, meaning he would never ever complete the task throughout all eternity.

It doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun, really, does it? never mind honorable. Only that was not exactly Albert Camus’s take on the myth. Camus, one of the leaders of the French existentialist movement, wrote a famous essay entitled “The Myth of Sisyphus” which concluded, “The struggle itself…is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” In other words, Sisyphus was happy because he had a purpose to his life and was working relentlessly to fulfill it.

Relentless work alone, of course, is not the answer. In George Orwell’s 1945 novella Animal Farm, one of the principal characters is a horse named Boxer. Boxer’s refrain, heard especially often when things were going poorly, was “I will work harder.” While it is true that Boxer accomplished a great deal in his lifetime, in the end the constant work left him broken and unable to save himself when he was shipped off to the knacker’s. (This was, I add in passing, a scene which horrified me back in 8th grade and which left me feeling permanent sympathy both for the working class and for horses.) Hard work matters, yes. But so do other things. How efficiently you work. Making time for other things. And why you work.

Which brings me to Hip Cat, by Jonathan London, my all-time favourite book. I read the entire story, which is really more of an extended jazz poem than a children’s book strictly speaking, the last time I spoke at an honor roll assembly. I also read it as the very first activity in the very first class of the newborn middle school nearly six years ago, and it has opened the Humanities 7 class every year since then. In the book, Hip Cat travels to an unnamed town (which we know to be San Francisco) to try to make it as a professional sax player. His initial success was short-lived, and he soon found himself living under bridges, playing in the streets for whatever coins people would toss his way, working part-time in a diner. Through it all, he practiced whenever he could, and he kept the faith. More – he brought a new depth to his playing, something the proprietor of a nightclub named “Minnie’s Can-Do” instinctively realized, telling him one night when he wandered in, “Sing it. You can do.” So he went up on stage, and “He blew his horn | all bluesy and forlorn. | Then he started singing better than ever, | remembering the river | where he was born. (…) the crowds went hog wild.” And later on, “When he rode the cable cars over the hills, | his feet flew out in his shiny new shoes. | Oobie-do shouted, | “Do what you love to do, and do it well!”

I have no doubt that throughout the winter term each of you here in this room has faced boulders that need to be rolled uphill, worked to maintain the focus on what is important, been offered well-timed support from a friend, a teacher, a family member, and had the chance to do what you love to do and do it well. All this is part of the human condition, and honor lies in the choices you make and the dignity and grace you bring to these choices.

With all this in mind, and since we are on the verge of National Poetry Month, I want to close with four short poems written by Stoneleigh-Burnham alumnae.

sometimes poems just aren’t.
– Laura Jansen

Untitled
You’re the master of your
house, the key that opens
and closes, the shadow that
appears and disappears.
– Michelle Morgan

Untitled
eyes close
same thought
eyes open
– Emma Rose Short-Lee

Desire
Tired feet
Longing expectations
Pink ballet slippers
White chiffon skirts
A continuous line
Flowing in motion
Striving for perfection
Fulfilling a dream
– Kimberly Demetropoulos

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