This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
As I ambled around in the most hideous green and yellow graduation gown, waiting for graduation to start
gearing up, a wave of nostalgia hit me. The pit in my stomach formed. I finally felt what I had spent the last
two weeks trying to force. “This is the last time I sit in this lunchroom.” “This is my last statistics class.” “This is
the last time we have homeroom announcements.” And the same too with friends. “This is the end of an era –
the last time I see my best friends every day, these friends who were the backbone of my life and allowed me
to be me unabashedly.” My brain had been purposefully constructing this-is-the-last sentences constantly.
And… nothing. I was trying to will a sense of finality, sadness. But these thoughts stayed thoughts, and
because of that, I wondered if I were really cold-hearted. How could I feel nothing? Apparently I was a
cerebral, analytic machine that had no twinge of emotion, no flutters of the heart. That is—until graduation.
As the traditions and pomp and circumstance began to commence, my heart started racing and my stomach
clenched. I finally felt what I knew. It was the end of an era, and all that had been will be no more. It was in
these moments of my finally-arrived heightened emotional state that I saw my junior and senior year English
teacher, Mr. Parent.
He looms large in my memory, because he was the first person I met who truly and fully embodied the life of
the mind. The engine that drove this man was intellectual curiosity, and to bear witness to that sort of person
– and his unbridled passion – had a lasting impact on me.
Mr. Parent walked up to me on my graduation day and handed me a letter he wrote thanking me for a book I
gave him. I treasure that letter. I keep it ensconced between the pages of my yearbook—and as each teaching
year draws to an end, I re-read the letter and get inspired to write a letter to my seniors. Because in that short
letter he wrote things I treasure to this day. Now you should know: I don’t profess to, nor have delusions, to
believe that I cast even a fraction of the shadow of Mr. Parent. However in his honor, every year I’ve taught, I
have written a letter to seniors wishing them goodbye as they are about to walk onto the graduation stage,
and from that stage, into the future.
This isn’t a graduation-speech-in-letter-form, nor a listing of advice (“don’t forget the sunblock”) from
someone who deeply wants you to be happy (though I deeply do want you to be happy). It is just a bit of
musing from a teacher who has seen before him the kids that he has known for at least a year (some for many
more) and feels maudlin at the thought of Packer without those faces around.
So let the musings begin.
You are lucky. I suspect most of you don’t even know how lucky you are. You have had four years in Packer’s
Upper School and have been exposed to so many opportunities. You can’t fully understand this, because
you’ve only lived your life, and no one else’s. But your schooling is not typical schooling. Your classes are not
typical classes. Your field trips are not typical field trips. You have real college counselors who can guide you.
You have deans and advisers and teachers who don’t let you fall through the cracks. You are cared for. You are
part of a real community. Not all of you can see all this – because you’re living your day to day and you don’t
have a larger-birds-eye perspective. But I can tell you that what you are (soon to be: were, sadly) a part of is
truly special and something to celebrate and feel grateful for.
In your time at Packer, you have been simultaneously nurtured and pushed – to the point where sometimes
there weren’t enough minutes in the day to do your extracurriculars and sports, write that essay, read that
assignment, do those problems, outline that reading, study for that test. (If you never felt that, I wish I could
say I am happy for you, but I fear that means is that you never pushed yourself to your own limits.) More than
anything, I hope at some point when you were being pushed, you met failure and said “Hello, failure, old
buddy! It’s nice to see you again.” This could be an academic failure -- heck, maybe even our class. And this
could be non-academic too. You ran for an elected office and failed. You didn’t snag the championship. Your
first crack at the ACT was a disaster. There is something so freeing once you accept that you are imperfect,
that you can’t control everything, and that sometimes you mess up. Welcome to life. The real question is:
what do you do then?
I mean, if you never push yourself farther than you think you can go, if you set the bar so low that you are
guaranteeing yourself continual success, then how are you going to ever see how capable you truly are? If you
set the bar just a little bit higher than you think you can achieve, again and again, and you embrace and learn
from failure, you are opening the way for you to move from being ordinary to being extraordinary.
On a very serious note, I live my life in a perpetual cycle of failures. I don’t regularly feel successful at what I
do. I view our classroom as my laboratory. And everyday I strive to do well by you – meet you where you’re at,
take you to where we need to go. And everyday, I watch the experiment of my lesson plan unfold. I see the
complex reactions taking place – by who is raising their hands, by what conversations are happening, by who
is sitting there waiting for their neighbor to write something instead of immediately writing themselves, by
how you did on the nightly work, by how well a concept was explained. And then the class ends, the fifty
minute experiment is over, and I look at my laboratory as I collect the folders and recycle the papers you all
leave behind. And I often – not sometimes, often – think “wow, that was a royal failure.” But that’s because I
set my bar high. And you know what else? Each year, the number of times I say that decreases. Because I learn
from watching you and listening to you. And then the following day (or sometimes the following year), I revise
my experiment. I design the class and everything we do based on where I see you guys are at. Failure can be a
wonderful thing to embrace, but only if you do something as a result of that failure. (Hopefully that explains
why I allow second chances in calculus.) Although I don’t see myself as a failure as a teacher, I don’t see myself
as being “there” yet (where “there” is the bar I set for myself). I only know that it is because of you, and our
daily laboratory, that I can get there. So thank you for that.
Mr. Parent stirred in my soul something that I had a hard time articulating. When reading one of the many
books by or about my childhood hero and Nobel prize-winning physicist, I ran across a quotation which
summed it all up for me, putting into words something I couldn’t say:
I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there.
There is something magical about the world around you. Keep an eye out for the magic. It appears as
questions… and there are so many questions! How can we – billions of years later – know about the earliest
moments of the universe? Where does matter come from? How can the world be probabilistic (quantum) in
nature when everything feels so causal? How do we know about the smallest worlds we cannot even see?
Why are there rainbows on the surface of an oil spill? How do rubber bands work – how do they come back to
their original shape? How can we – on this planet – know how far things are, and that there are other galaxies
out there? How is it that the natural world somehow can be encoded through simple and elegant
mathematical formulas? Does that imply that math is somehow encoded in the universe, and it is being
discovered rather than invented? Does the fact that we keep on digging in mathematics and are still drawing
connections among disparate sub-fields imply that there is some grand unifying structure undergirding
everything mathematical and physical?
Of course I’m interested in more than the scientific. How can we understand the unfolding of the world as we
know it? Can history help us figure out why the world shapes up in the way it shapes up? Is there causality in
history? What is it about a carefully constructed single sentence, or a single measure of music, that can pack
an emotional wallop? What happens in our brains as we read a book and digest what it has to say – do we
change? And the curiosities: Why is the sky blue? What is it like growing up as a transgendered person? How
does a miniscule computer chip hold all that information? How did the notion of the modern nation state
develop? What was life like back in seventeenth century England? What is the most watched youtube video?
Why do we have nine Supreme Court justices, instead of seven or five? How does wireless internet work?
These are my questions that popped into my head as I muse. But you have your own: Politics. Music. Art.
Sports. Dance. Business. Theater. Philosophy…
Amidst all the clubs and classes and nightly homework assignments, I fear that that child-like curiosity about
the world, the desire to know things, has been beaten out of you. Or maybe that is just growing up. But if so,
there is a simple recipe to get this curiosity back:
Notice something interesting, and wonder about it
Google the answer (you all have google-fu I presume)
Work at understanding the answer
The most amazing thing is that mankind has come up with so many answers to so many questions.
I offered up the Feynman quotation to Mr. Parent, who wrote back in his letter: “Stephen Hawking speaks of
the thermodynamic, psychological, and cosmological arrows of time that define existence as entropic
movement from past to future in an expanding universe. And that seems to define the hero’s journey: the
personally expanding possibilities revealed in a courageous life bounded by and aware of entropic time.”
I personally read this as an intellectual quest: you – dear students – are in a world that is growing in
knowledge and is constantly reshaping itself around you. And you – dear students – have only a lifetime to
enjoy it. And I mean “only a lifetime” because the world is vast and time runs short. So be curious creatures,
get passionate about something you’re curious about, and devour it like there is no tomorrow. Work hard at
understanding. Extraordinarily hard. Work harder than those around you. And let wonderment be your guide.
Always my best, with sincerest best wishes,
It’s the non-google-able questions which are often the most interesting and the hardest to answer, if an answer even exists!
A juxtaposition on wonder.
For those students who are not mathematically inclined.
For those students who are mathematically inclined.
Edgar Allen Poe
SONNET – TO SCIENCE
Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Who preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee! or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?
Poets say science takes away from the beauty
of the stars—mere globs of gas atoms.
Nothing is “mere.” I too can see the stars on
a desert night, and feel them. But do I see
less or more? The vastness of the heavens
stretches my imagination—stuck on this
carousel my little eye can catch one-million-
year-old light…. What is the pattern, or the
meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to
the mystery to know a little about it. For far
more marvelous is the truth than any artists
of the past imagined! Why do the poets of the
present not speak of it? What men are poets
of the present who can speak of J upiter as if
he were like a man, but if he is an immense
spinning sphere of methane and ammonia
must be silent?