If you haven’t heard Paul Burgett’s “The Fiery Furnace” speech (here on Soundcloud) you must.  It’s one of the greatest speeches of all times.  I like to listen to a good speech.  A good speech makes me laugh then punches me in the gut, teaching a powerful lesson.

This is one of those speeches.   Are you deciding your path in life?  This speech is for you.  Are you disillusioned with your current path. It’s for you.  Are you thinking about going to college, grad school, changing careers, or wondering what to do with all the knowledge you collected?  This speech is for you.

I couldn’t remember why I didn’t remember this speech, only elements and lessons.  It’s because I never heard it.

University of Rochester Dean and Vice President Paul Burgett gives this classic “The Fiery Furnace” speech every year to students at The Eastman School of Music.  River Campus students got a different speech, I think, but I had the pleasure of taking a music class with Paul and learning many of the lessons he taught here.  Paul remains an inspiration to me not only because of the lessons I learned, the fact he wouldn’t let me drop out of college when I was broke, or because of the stellar relationships he made with students even while being a University Vice President, but because he stayed in the classroom.  He is a true leader.  I got many of my teaching tools from him. 

Passion and Ability Drives Ambition.

That is what Paul teaches.  That’s the theme of “The Fiery Furnace.”

As you may know, I went to the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, which is one of the top conservatories in the nation.  I “went” to Eastman through the back door, in the same sense as I “went” to Harvard when I got the fake library card so I could research at the Yenching library or “went” to MIT to see a friend’s freshman dorm or I “went” to Yale one day when I was in the area, and I “go” to Brown often because it’s right down the road and I like to laugh at the fact they are so socially conscious that there are six types of trash and recycle bins in every garbage cluster.  

Rochester students could “go” to Eastman and get a music degree.  That’s what I tried to do when no one was looking.  To “go” to Eastman, I simply got on the bus from the River Campus and was dropped off  at the Eastman campus where I met my grad student, Michelle, who must have suffered greatly listening to my clarinet.  Helping humanities students was sort of like graduate student community service to the Mozart impaired–future musicians teaching the rest of us some notes.  I was never going to be a professional musician, but I did keep the rats out of the dining hall. 

I failed out of music in two weeks flat. It was a mercy killing. I will forever be in debt to Dr. Dan Harrison for his compassion in putting me out of my misery and to God for breaking my borrowed clarinet in two as I played. 

Passion and Ability Drive Ambition.

That’s what Paul’s speech teaches.   I was glad to rediscover it.

“You can do anything you set your mind to.”  “Passion and ability drive ambition” has taken me through three plus careers and allowed me to continually reinvent myself for the next chapter.  My students won’t have three careers–they’ll have an average of seven, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.  They need all the passion, ability, and ambition they can get.

“The Fiery Furnace” says school is a place where we collide with ideas, where we learn to research, analyze, layer the ideas with our passions, and put them into action.  We then have the responsibility on what we learned to the next generation.

“You will go into the fiery furnace, and be confronted with these things, things that will rock you to the core,” Paul said.  “And I promise you, you will not die.  You will come out stronger, tempered like steel.”

He was right.  I didn’t die.  I came out stronger, knowing I can conquer nearly any challenge with passion and ability…and a dose of hard work.

It’s a good reminder.

An essential reminder.

I’ve put “The Fiery Furnace” on my calendar to listen to again.  If I’d heard this exact speech at eighteen, I wouldn’t have been ready.  I needed to spend two decades in the furnace to have enough life behind me to understand.  Now, I can act.

This speech applies to you.

Take out “music” and “insert your passion here.”

If you’re an educator, things Paul says about teaching may just keep you in the classroom.  You’ll remember why you teach, study, learn, and inspire.  If you’re reinventing yourself, you’ll realize you’re on the right path when you feel passion intersect with hard work, and all of a sudden you feel like less like tempered steel and more like gold. 

Paul stayed in the classroom–he continues to teach a class a semester.  His class remains one of the best of my undergraduate or graduate studies.  I used the material in a class of my own just the other day.

I often feel if all educational leaders taught just one class we wouldn’t be talking about education reform.

Passion and Ability Drive Ambition.

I’m going to go write that somewhere on a wall in my classroom today.

[Photo credit:  Wikipedia, Kodak Hall at Eastman Campus]

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