Published on November 17, 2023

This edition of The Principal’s Blog is an extract from Rebecca Butterworth’s speech from the Year 12 Valedictory Dinner and Presentation Evening.


Graduates, I feel truly honoured and privileged to be able to address you this evening and to have been your Principal, albeit for only two years. In that two years I’ve seen you grow as human beings with strong minds and opinions and a readiness to take on the world.  

So in my final words to you as your Principal, I have chosen to speak from the heart and to urge you to welcome the wisdom of your own hearts into your adult lives.   

I have a series of lessons to share with you. 


Lesson #1: is pay attention to the edges. 

Sometimes when “the going gets tough, the tough get going”. We run. We seek solace and comfort elsewhere. We look to social media – Instagram, FB for us oldies, Tik Tok, or in some instances other forms of addiction – so we don’t need to feel the hard edges. We look outside ourselves for anything that will take the edge off. 

 Brene Brown, in Atlas of the Heart, says: 

“So often, when we feel lost, adrift in our lives, our first instinct is to look out into the distance to find the nearest shore. But that shore, the solid ground, is within us. The anchor we are searching for is connection, and it is internal. To form meaningful connections with others, we must first connect with ourselves…” 

By paying attention to the edges, not running away from the tough feelings bubblingly away inside, we find and connect to our anchors. Instead of taking the edge off, I encourage you to walk to the edge, look down, feel the hardness of your edges and embrace the solidity that is your own self. 


Lesson #2: hold others accountable for being good human beings. 

Don’t walk away from your pain or that of others. As you reflect on your time at school, how many times have you let a hurtful word said by another (either towards you or a friend) stand? How often have you walked past behaviours that you know are wrong, but you didn’t want to get involved? 

How often have you let a friend or family member off the hook when their words or behaviours have hurt you? 

Holding someone accountable for being hurtful is a gift. It gives them the choice to grow and learn. And it empowers you as an ally and a human being.  

Your voice and sense of agency is in your hands; as is the power to elevate the voice and agency of others, and thereby cultivate a shared sense of humanity and dignity for all. 


Lesson # 3: choose to be curious  

I am going to quote Brene Brown again, this time in reference to curiosity: 

“Choosing to be curious is choosing to be vulnerable because it requires us to surrender to uncertainty. We have to ask questions, admit to not knowing, risk being told that we shouldn’t be asking and, sometimes, make discoveries that lead to discomfort.” – Brene Brown, p. 65 

At school – particularly in the HSC – we have focused on you having the answers, knowing what type of questions to expect in the exam, and rehearsing your knowledge in preparation for assessments.  

Now, as you look out into the world, admit what you don’t know. Let yourself be uncomfortable and sit with uncertainty. This edge can be particularly uncomfortable and painful because it requires humility.   

Stay curious, let go of perfection and embrace uncertainty. And remember if you don’t know say you don’t know, because someone else will be grateful for your humility. 


Lesson #4: Welcome polarity into your life  

Life is like a beautiful dance where we move between positive and negative experiences and feelings every day. This is life.  

Let yourself flow between and don’t hold on too tight to either the negative or the positive edges. Bring into your lives the people, places, events and activities that support you embracing the dance. We are all witness to the dance of life so welcome its beauty and complexity. 


Lesson #5: Create boundaries 

As Prentis Hemphill said: “Boundaries are the distance at which I can love you and me simultaneously.” 

You and I are not the same. We are unique, every one of us. Honouring our uniqueness is about honouring ourselves and the boundaries that make us who we are.  

From the solidity that firm boundaries give us, we can learn to be kind and love ourselves and thereby truly, deeply care for others. 


Lesson #6: Rethink Empathy 

This is another great quote from Brene Brown: 

“We need to dispel the myth that empathy is walking in someone else’s shoes. Rather than walking in your shoes, I need to learn how to listen to the story you tell about what it’s like in your shoes and believe you even when it doesn’t match my experiences”. (p. 123) 

Most of us have read or know about To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. A seminal novel that, for those of us in the western world, cemented our thinking about empathy as walking in someone else’s shoes. My challenge to you is to acknowledge that you can never really walk in another person’s shoes or know what they are experiencing. All you can do is listen – with your heart as well as your head. You can be courageous and walk alongside others, create space for the experience of others, and only speak for others with their permission. 


Lesson # 7: Embrace Authenticity and self-acceptance  

We often think of belonging as belonging to others. But we actually need to belong to ourselves as much as others. “Any belonging that asks us to betray ourselves is not true belonging”. 

As a generation you value being empowered. If that is the case, then never let go of your self – don’t let others tell you who you are or need to be to belong to a group, to a relationship, or to an organisation. 

Stay true to your values. 

We often talk about being in a VUCA world – a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous time. 

I don’t think the world is any more VUCAish than it has ever been. Change is a reality of life and you will evolve – your values, your internal compass will change. But if you embrace your edges – those moments of discomfort – you will know when you are being asked to do something or be someone who is “not you”. When you are being asked to betray yourself.  

Lean into your edges and listen because you need to accept yourselves to feel true belonging.  

And remember: 

  • Belonging is being somewhere where you want to be, and they want you. 
  • Fitting in is being somewhere where you want to be, but they don’t care one way or another (p. 162) 


Lesson #8: Embrace love and joy 

There is a great saying that goes like this: “the broken hearted are the bravest among us – they dared to love” (p. 191) 

It takes courage to love others from a place of authenticity. If you are willing to embrace the edges, be authentic and true to yourself, only accept real belonging, be ok about holding others to account, then love will bring you such equanimity.  

Learning to love is also about learning to embrace joy: let joy into your lives as much as you can because it keeps your heart open. Joy and love bring goodness and strength into our lives which builds our resilience and courage as human beings. 


Lesson #9: Stop Freaking out 

This is easier said than done, but if you stay connected to your heart you’ll know when anxiety, fear and panic are rising. In those moments ask yourself these questions: 

Do I have enough information to freak out? 

Will freaking out help? 

The answer to both questions is likely no. 

As Dr Suess says in Oh the Places You’ll Go: 

You’ll get mixed up, of course, 
As you already know. 
You’ll get mixed up 
With many strange birds as you go. 
So be sure when you step. 
Step with care and great tact 
And remember that Life’s 
A Great Balancing Act. 
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. 
And never mix up your right foot with your left. 

So don’t freak out and instead read Dr Suess! 


Lesson #10 Comes from one of my favourite artists. This artist is Michael Franti and I love his song “Start Small, Think Big”. 

It might sound like a cliché, but you can do anything you set your mind to. You can solve some of the more complex problems our world is facing. I know you can.  

But you can’t do it all at once or on your own. You have to start small first and bring others with you. If you want to solve the climate crisis, create peace in the world, start your own business, invent a medical cure, be a singer, actor or athlete, start small and think big.  

Graduates to discover who you truly are at any given moment, embrace your heart as your safe harbour. Let it be your guide. It will tell you when you are authentically being yourself and when you are not. It will help you stay curious, set positive boundaries, and embrace uncertainty. It will teach you true empathy.  


As you go out into the world, remember to live, work and play from the heart, as well as the head. 

Lean into your edges, embrace them and stay curious. Don’t seek to run away because the edge will always be there, willing and waiting to tell you the story of your heart, a story that needs to be heard.  


Brene Brown, Atlas of the Heart. Random House Publishing Group, 2021. 

Rebecca Butterworth

Rebecca Butterworth

Rebecca is the Principal of Hunter Valley Grammar School. She has a Masters of Education, International Education from Monash University, a Postgraduate Diploma in Education from the Queensland University of Technology and a Bachelor of Arts, History and English from the University of Tasmania.