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Thursday, May 24, 2012 Dear ____________________, Your time at Packer is over.

And I’m sure you’re either numb, and it hasn’t hit you (and maybe it won’t), or you’re a fibrous bundle of nerves and excitement. Either way, you’ve finished what is probably the most transformative intellectual journey you will undertake in your life. It is in these four years that you have come from the primordial ooze as freshman, O Lowly Frosh!, who could barely write a reasonable thesis sentence in English, who didn’t know about the realm of imaginary numbers, who didn’t know how to balance a simple chemical equation, who didn’t know the nuances of Reconstruction or the Renaissance… to someone who has acquired a ridiculous amount of knowledge.

what you knew then

what you know now

I ask you to take a step back from where you are today and to look at your work in ninth grade. (Have you saved any of it?) See what sort of essays you wrote and what sort of math you were doing. I honestly think you should take a moment and do it. (If you aren’t nostalgic yet, it might be just the trick to turn on that wistfulness!) But I posit to you that in these four years you’ve learned more about the world than you will probably learn in any four years hence – college included. (College is where you start to specialize, tunneling into your intellectual world, from the broadening of your world that happens in high school.) Think about it. List all the places and time periods you’ve studied in history, list all the books you’ve devoured in English, list all the topics in mathematics, list all the main ideas from the sciences. I’m serious about this. Start by writing down the list of books you read for your English classes: __________________________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________________________ Okay, I’m not an idiot. You aren’t going to do that. You’re seniors and you’re lazy and it sounds dumb. But I bet you in 5 years from now you’re going to read this and regret that you didn’t fill this year. What’s my point here? When I was a senior graduating high school, my English teacher handed me an envelope with a thank you letter for something I gave him. His act of writing this letter imparting words of wisdom meant something to me. I keep the letter ensconced between the pages of my yearbook and each year around this time I bring it out and re-read it. And in honor of him, each year I write a letter to my seniors, my dear dear seniors, and it always has the same theme. Treasure knowledge. My favorite quotation is not from a classic of literature. It was uttered by 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! Become a Renaissance person. This is why I am so passionate about teaching in the quirky way I do… 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 with calculus, I saw you transform from being mathematical kids to mathematical adults. Before you could only find the slope of a line – the steepness of a line. But soon, with calculus, you could find slopes of curves and not just lines. And by finding slopes, you could find maxima and minima, which meant that you could find the solution to “how optimized is this can?” (in addition to many other questions). And then when we started playing around with anti-derivatives, we learned that an anti-derivative actually is intimately related to the area under a curve. Curious. Unexpected. And suddenly, we were able to find areas of things that weren’t circles or simple polygons. And we expanded our knowledge to find the volumes of strange objects… … like this one. And then finally we did a short unit on wealth inequality in the United States, and realized we could use areas under curves to come up with a measure for how unequally wealth is distributed. And we even found convincing evidence that the wealth inequality was increasing over time. All from playing around with two simple ideas. The slope of

two points infinity close together, and the areas of infinitely thin rectangles added together. 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 for me, 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. The pleasure has been mine. Always,

Sameer Shah