May 21, 2013 Dear XFILLINTHENAMEX, The physicality of a book… The rectangular prism is a brick. Three dimensional, hefty.

But with one simple gesture, the solidity of this object transforms it into a peacock, individual pages splayed out, the high density giving way to individual, fragile sheets. With one simple gesture, this three dimensional object turns into a stack of almost perfect two dimensional planes. And on the front and back of these planes are letters and punctuations, words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters. Pick up a closed book, run your hands over the side opposite the spine. This thing you have in your hands is an object of wonder to me, because what your hands are gripping isn’t really paper. This three dimensional brick is an old-school harddrive, unbelievably efficient at holding stuff. In your hands, you are gripping ideas, stories, data, intellectual structures which you use to view, and to create, the world around us. And if you give it a moment to sink in, this portable hefty object which you pull apart and open and flip, scan and dog-ear, scrawl marginalia in, this portable hefty object is just one of millions out there, one star of many in the universe. And that, to me, makes me feel like a giant – for I can see all the stars out there – and a flea – for what do I do now? I know what you’re thinking: “Mr. Shah, you’re being all flowery and clichéd and using stupid metaphors.” I know, I know. But just the thought that something so physically small can contains so much inside of it… an anthology of poetry spanning generations, an entire branch of mathematics that took hundreds of years to develop, a classic tale which exemplifies the culture of a generation… all in a few cubic inches? I don’t know how else to express the tantalizing wonder and excitement I feel when I hold a new tome filled ready to be devoured. Growing up, in my childhood home, you would never find a book on the floor. By accident, if a book did happen to fall on the ground, one of my parents would pick it up and say a short prayer in contrition. A book on the floor was wrong, it was a sin. I imagine it sounds strange to picture this. But to them – and instilled in me – is the notion that knowledge is to be revered, respected, and above all, acquired, cultivated, and produced. Maybe that’s where this awe of books, of learning, came from. Every year I write a letter to my seniors, as they go off into the world. I do this because of a teacher I had in high school. He was my 11th and 12th grade English teacher, Mr. Parent. He modeled something I had never seen before: a person of true unbridled intellect. At my graduation, he handed me an envelope which I still keep to this day, containing a letter with a message that meant a lot to me, a message about following the hero’s journey in the face of all that gets put in your way, including the worst obstacles: unstoppable time and entropy. In order to honor him, I have kept up the tradition of writing a letter to my seniors. Even though the ennui and apathy that I see from many in your graduating class in these final pangs of high school make me worry what follows will fall on deaf ears, I still feel like it’s worth a shot. Because even if at times you didn’t want to be at Packer, you didn’t want to be in math class, you didn’t want to do that integral or take that derivative, you were involved in one of the most transformative intellectual experiences that you will ever have in your life. Full stop. And that’s something worth thinking about. Take a moment, and think of all the classes you took. Think of the content of one of those classes. Seriously, do this.

(pregnant pause)

It’s a pretty ridiculous amount of classes, and each class exposed you to a pretty ridiculous amount of things. From the Franco-Prussian war, to how to scan a poem, to the meaning of integration, to chemical bonding.

what you knew before ninth grade

what you know now

In high school, you get a lot of everything. Your intellectual world was broadened. You learned to write. You learned how to think abstractly. You learned how to problem solve. You learned to be creative. You learned how to read analytically. And it was through this, more than most anything else, you grew into being adults. And so you may ask, what’s the point of all this? Where are you going with all this? It goes back to my parents and their beliefs about knowledge. It goes back to my love of reading. It goes back to Mr. Parent and his edict to live the hero’s journey. It all is summed up in my favorite quotation, which is not from a classic of literature nor from a math textbook. It is from Richard Feynman, physicist extraordinaire:

I was born not knowing, and have had only a little time to change that here and there.
And I know as you go marching off into your lives as adults, you’ll have moments where you wonder what the point of it all is. There will be points of crisis where everything around you will appear lackluster. But I ask you to remember the thing that makes human life so extraordinary: our capacities to know things. And here’s the secret:

what you actually know

what you don’t know

Life gets more exciting and is much fuller when you recognize this. There’s so much you can know – so many things, anything you are remotely interested in! – and there’s only a lifetime to figure it out. And I mean it – only a lifetime. So revel in things that interest you! Pursue them! Jump from one island of knowledge to another! This is why I am so passionate about teaching, and teaching in the way I do… That’s why I don’t understand senior skip day, and will never understand senior skip day – it’s like tossing a book on the floor to me. That’s why I expect a lot out of each one of you, but give you the support to reach what I know you can do. I want you to really understand stuff,

because understanding stuff is amazing. I also know that really understanding stuff is tough and takes a lot of work. And I know that you won’t be spoon-fed stuff. You have to go after stuff and really take the initiative to devour it. You see, you have a choice about what you’re going to get out of college. You can treat it as a means to an end… a path you were always on… a road to get from point A to point B. Or you can live in the present, take what’s before you moment by moment, and take advantage of everything before you. Instead of a path, you can see college as a destination. A place where you can learn anything and everything. So have fun in college, make lots of friends, enjoy what being away from home means. That part of things will be magical. But I entreat you not to forget what you have before you, as you likely will never again have this sort of freedom to learn for the sake of learning, to set your brain on fire, to explore your intellectual passions. Now I understand that you aren’t going off to college thinking “hey! I’m going to be a mathematician.” But I’m glad that you have been exposed to one pinnacle of human thought: calculus. Calculus is the study of things changing, and by the simple act of finding the slope of two points infinitesimally close to each other, we can precisely find how fast it is changing at that moment in time. And if we wanted to find the area of things (anything!), we simply had to add together an infinite number of infinitesimally thin rectangles together. And like with an unexpected twist in a mystery novel, it turned out that finding the (signed) area and finding the derivatives were mere opposites of each other – when they seem like they would have nothing to do with each other. That’s beauty. It’s unexpected and unreal, yet it forms the foundation of so much of what we have uncovered about the world. Forget the rest, sure, whatever, but think how much math came tumbling out of these two simple ideas that turned out to be actually two sides of the same coin. I have always cared more about you learning something, having an a-ha moment, getting that brain wrinkle, than grades. (Which is why I have no problem giving you a second or third chance on something you didn’t get.) Hopefully you understood why I was so insistent that you could explain what you were doing, that you had an underlying sense of what was going on mathematically. I could care less if you can take a derivative if you had no idea of what taking a derivative meant conceptually. Heck, I could teach 5th graders to take a derivative. (“Hey kid! Repeat after me: to take the derivative of x 4 , you put the small number in front of the x , and then rewrite the small number to be one less!”) The plight of being a teacher is that even though I hope that I’ve conveyed the importance of true knowledge, the real gems instead of the shiny fake baubles, I don’t really know. I hope you go off into the world and can tell the difference. I hope you experience true passion in some intellectual realm. I hope you learn enough about the world to have convictions, and that you live your life through those convictions. And as Mr. Parent, my English told me in his letter delivered to me fourteen years ago, I hope you have “a courageous life journey bounded by and aware of entropic time.” Remember, you have only a lifetime. Make the most of it. Always,

Sameer Shah

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