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13-16 May 2018

Dear STU,

When the year started, I had two lives. During the week, I was your math teacher. On weekends, I was my parents’ son. When I
could manage on Friday afternoons, I would leave school and hop on a subway, switch to a train, and then grab a Lyft to a
hospital in New Jersey. My mom was pallid, bedridden, and in pain. All of this from unpredicted complications in her cancer
treatment. When she slept, which was often, I would plan lessons, grade papers, and reply to your emails. It was a relief to have
a purpose to my time, something to focus my mind on so I wouldn’t constantly be thinking about her, or more specifically,
facing the idea of not-her.

You probably didn’t know that. I think I briefly mentioned


something about it in class once. Having these two lives
reminds me of a quotation I first saw ages ago in one of the
first xkcd comics1. These are comics for the tragically geeky,
but the early ones were less polished and less funny. In this
case, not funny at all, just a stolen quotation.

Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean


everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean
everybody — no matter how dull and boring they are on the
outside. Inside them they've all got unimaginable, magnificent,
wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds... Not just one world.
Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.

In terms of what I’ve learned from my students, it has been my


most remarkable year of teaching. From conversations with
you about physical and mental health issues, to listening to
honest words about what it’s like to be gay or non-conforming,
to hearing you speak out about issues people of color face, to
hearing about sexual assault and harassment and the aftermath,
you’ve given me glimpses into some of your secret worlds.

One of the things you learn as a teacher – and it takes your first
few years teaching to really grok this truism – is that your students are not just “math students” or even “students.” You’re kids
who see the world in neon. Bright and high energy and vibrating with possibilities. You all have hidden depths. Of course, y’all
tend to keep your worlds separate from teachers and parents and even your friends as you’re figuring things out. And I think
that’s how it should be. But it’s been such an honor to have your entire grade lift the veil and let us in, in some little way. And
by sharing your experiences and thoughts, you reminded me that we have to walk through this world knowing every single
person has these worlds inside of them. And we have to honor knowing this – that everyone is hella fascinating if we dig deep
enough – through our actions.

At the end of every year of teaching, I’ve crafted a letter for my seniors. That’s what this is. (Duh.) I never really know what
happens to them, but realistically, I bet most will end up in the recycling bin. (Cue sad horn noise.) But I can’t stop doing it year
after year. It’s because I don’t do it for you. I started this as a way for me to say goodbye, and also as a way to honor one of my
teachers from high school. Mr. Parent was my junior and senior year English teacher, and his shadow looms large in my life. I
am going to let you in on something. I knew I was going to be a math teacher when I was your age. I loved math in high school.
(Big surprise, I know. You can pick up your jaw from the floor now.) But it was in my English class, in Mr. Parent, that I saw
someone I wanted emulate. His eyes would light up as he extemporized on the Fisher King myth and James Joyce and Wagner
and Ansel Adams and especially Faulkner, oh how he loved Faulkner! I never knew that sort of person could exist. You see, he
was the teacher I had who embodied the life of the mind. At my graduation, he handed me a letter that he wrote in thanks for a
letter I wrote to him. That letter remains entombed in my high school yearbook, and once a year it sees light. That is now, when
I start crafting my letter to you, the letter I write in his honor.

Packer is a special place. It’s an intimate place. You have less than 100 kids in your graduating class. And wow – your teachers!
You have so many teachers who live and breathe the life of the mind, so many Mr. Parents. And, miracles of miracles, teachers
who truly care about you and allow you to be seen. High-school-me is jealous. I can’t image what an intellectual haven this

1 https://xkcd.com/52/ . For full disclosure, I don’t really love the author of the quotation.
place must have been for you. (And, yes, at times, hell, but wow what an opportunity.) Since you haven’t experienced anything
else, I just want you to know you have experienced something truly special. I say with sincerity: you are lucky.

In my letter to Mr. Parent, I shared with him a quotation that meant a lot to me:

I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there.

It was written by physicist Richard Feynman. Each time I read it, I am filled with a glorious anxiety. We have to be in a mad
rush to discover truths about the world, about ourselves, about each other. Now maybe the thing that gets your heart pitter
pattering isn’t understanding the unsolvability of the quantic or why roots of x 7 = 1 when graphed on the complex plane form a
perfect septagon. But at the very least, I hope you had a moment of wonderment or surprise at the beauty of calculus in high
school. I mean, who of you knew that the fact that we can say “we’re going 53 mph at 4:07pm” was going to lead us to think
about how to bring two points infinitely close together without actually being the same point? And who knew that there were
such simple ways to determine the slope-iness of common functions? From scratch, we built up a whole mathematical world
around slope-iness. And then, the final turn. We saw that undoing slope-iness, taking an anti-derivative, had everything to do
with area. What in the what?! We can find the areas of any kinds of shapes we can describe mathematically – no longer simple
kindergarten shapes like rectangles and parallelograms! I’ll take it! That connection – that the process of undoing a derivative
gives us a way to capture area – is one of the most beautiful and unexpected things I’ve ever experienced. From the start of the
year with Blurpo to the end of the year reprising our roadtrip scenario, we built a whole structure based on one idea: the very
small (the +h in our derivative definition, the infinitessimal, the super thin rectangles in our Riemann sums as we gained
accuracy) can be harnessed to create some unbelievable results.

Okay, okay, sorry, I get it… but I’m a math teacher, so these things speak to my sensibility. But for you, maybe it’s the
complexities of the conflict in Syria or teasing out how the brain works or figuring how to create artwork that evoke emotional
responses. Whatever it is, I hope that in the days that seem the most bleak, you remember there is something magical about the
world. I also hope that you don’t see the world as a place where you need perfection. The most shiny gems, the deepest insights,
the best bits of knowledge, only come from hard work. If it were easy, there would be no point. Which means that in order to
get this shiny knowledge, you have to be willing push yourself and be okay falling flat on your face. I once read about a
professor who kept a C.V. of failures (grants they didn’t get, papers that got rejected from journals, graduate programs they
didn’t get accepted to, etc.). I heart this! They celebrated taking risks. They weren’t ashamed of failure; they kept on pushing
themselves. And by doing these things, they pushed themselves and grew. I wish this for you. No wonder, you may be thinking,
our course was designed with a safety net that allowed for fixing your understanding and demonstrating this improved
understanding of certain concepts through reassessments. I wanted you to see that you could grow, if you could learn from your
mistakes and put in the hard work.

Oh blerg. I always start writing these things with the intention of not being hyperbolic. Not using flowery language like “I wish
this for you” and “the letter remains entombed,” and not giving you fortune cookie admonitions. In general, I am a fan of
simplicity and clarity. Sorry. Wistfulness messes with my psyche. Dang, that last sentence… there I go again!

At one point in the first semester, things weren’t looking good for my mom. I emailed Dr. Dennis saying that I might need to
take time off from school. My heart was breaking, and I started thinking how I didn’t know if she knew how much I appreciated
and loved her. Our family doesn’t express our emotions often. I was overwhelmed with regret. The next week, she started
making a miraculous recovery. There’s more time. She still has cancer and it’s still spreading. So it’s probably not a lot, but
there’s a little more time.

The TL;DR version: Act unto others knowing they are complex and wondrous and deserving. Take a beat to appreciate that
what you were afforded during your time at Packer. Work hard and become okay with failure in your quest to make your mark.
Calculus rocks. Speak simply, except when that’s impossible. And lastly, time is precious, so don’t take it or people in your life
for granted.

Always my best,
and have a wonderful life,

Sameer Shah