The following address was read to the fifth graders and their parents at the graduation ceremony at Zia Elementary School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA.The Important Work of Frederick the Mouse
May 15, 2013
Last year I read a story by Dr. Seuss. It was called King Looie Katz. It was an allegory about leaders and followers. Of course the story stressed the importance of being good leaders. Everybody says that, including Dr. Seuss. But it also emphasized the importance of being good followers, informed and responsible followers, followers who recognize when leaders have run astray from good leadership and are no longer good leaders. In these cases, good followers know how to muster the intelligence and the courage to call the leaders out and hold them accountable for their transgressions. This essentially makes the good followers the new good leaders. I love Dr. Seuss!
I also love Leo Lionni. My favorite work of his is a little book about a little mouse named Frederick. It is a work of fiction, a style of writing I hope you continue to enjoy despite current trends to reduce or eliminate it.
[At this point Frederick, by Leo Lionni, was read to the audience. In this book, Frederick and his four little mouse friends are getting ready for the long, cold, dark, winter. While the other mice gather wheat, grain, and seeds, Frederick gathers rays of sunshine, stories, and words. Of course, the other mice don't believe Frederick's work is real work, and they remind him of that at every turn. But in the middle of the winter, when the food is nearly gone and the mice are anxious to get their minds off the cold, the hunger, and the desperation, Frederick astounds them with his ability to warm them with the rays of sun he has stored, entertain them with his stories, and comfort them with his poetry. In the end, the other mice realize that Frederick's work, though somewhat unconventional, is as important as theirs.]
Dr. Seuss and Leo Lionni don’t just write cute little books for children; they write lessons for life from which we readers might derive some wisdom. The obvious lesson in this book is the value of work.
From kindergarten through 5th grade you have often been encouraged to be like the other mice, especially when it comes to getting your work done. Much of the work you have been required to complete has been designed and prescribed by adults you will never meet and who will assure you they know what’s best for you. It is work that can be easily entered onto bubble sheets and evaluated by a computer, for their convenience. This work is easy to recognize, validate, and reward. This is the work of the four little mice.
However, as you now well know, there is other, often more important work you have completed over the last six years, work that is not so easily recognized or rewarded. It is the work of creativity, cooperation, and caring; flexibility, fantasy, and fun. And while there are no bubbles or computers that can evaluate this work, it is as important to your personal and academic growth as the more conventional and recognizable work you’ve completed so far. This other important work is, of course, the work of Frederick.
As you leave elementary school and go onto middle and high school, do the work of the four little mice and do it well. You will recognize this work by the little names they give it—DRA, SBA, PARCC, and CCSS—and you will be told your success in college and career depend on it. But as you strive to comply with the demands of those who have the power to define this work, don’t neglect the work of Frederick. Frederick knows best what work is most important for him and his community, and he does that work as best he can, regardless of whether or not it can be validated on bubble sheets by powerful mice he will never meet.