You might have heard me say before that I believe that my students and I enter into a community of learning together at the beginning of each school year. While it is our tangible goal to study the measure of the earth (geometry) and change in motion (calculus), our intangible goal is to enter into the practice of learning.
We are not here to celebrate because you’re smart. We are here to celebrate what you’ve accomplished because you are committed to the practice of learning. We are here to celebrate the perseverance that you’ve shown, all of the hours of studying and practice that you have put in. We are even here to celebrate the synapses that have fired in your brain every time you’ve made a mistake – every time you’ve learned something new. We are here to celebrate your kindness to us and to each other. And we are here to celebrate the questions you have asked.
In The Falconer – What We Wish We Had Learned in School, Grant Lichtman suggests that “Questions are the waypoints on the path of wisdom”. We are here to celebrate your journey towards wisdom. I know your parents agree that you are well on your way to learning the art of questioning. You have been asking questions since you could talk: Why is broccoli green? Why is 2+2 equal to 4? Why do dogs bark and cats meow? What if my internet goes out on the night of the deadline? Who came up with the number e? What if it snows and we don’t have class tomorrow? What if my alarm doesn’t go off? Why does the unit circle go counter-clockwise?
As your journey continues, we urge you to keep asking questions – to keep learning –to seek peace and defend justice – to live responsibly – but we also want to warn you away from only doing enough to get by.
In his book about ethics, Sam Wells insists over and over that you cannot know what to do and how to act without preparation. Don’t expect to be able to lead later unless you’ve done the hard work of becoming a leader. You can’t sleep now and expect to do the right thing later. So, he tells the story of a surgery that took a tragic turn in an Edinburgh hospital in the 50s resulting in the death of a young child. Later that week two friends were discussing the tragedy, and one of them expressed sympathy for the surgeon who had run into a completely unexpected complication. The other friend disagreed.
I think the man is to blame. If somebody had handed me ether instead of chloroform, I would have known from the weight it was the wrong thing. You see, I know the surgeon. We were students together at Aberdeen, and he could have become one of the finest surgeons in Europe if only he had given his mind to it. But he didn’t. He was more interested in golf. So he did just enough work to pass his exams and no more, and that is how he has lived his life – just enough to get through but no more; so he has never picked up those seemingly peripheral bits of knowledge that can one day be crucial. The other day [at that table] a bit of ‘peripheral’ knowledge was crucial and he didn’t have it. But it wasn’t the other day that he failed – it was thirty-nine years ago, when he only gave himself half-heartedly to medicine. (74)
Our hope for you is for you to be who you are called to be – to find something to which to give yourself whole-heartedly – something about which you are passionate – and for which you learn all of the peripheral knowledge crucial to doing the right thing. (We aren’t suggesting you should never play golf.)
We’ve spent the past several years convincing you that the part plus the part equals the whole. You remember, right? In geometry – the Segment Addition Postulate – If I have a piece of wire that is 4 m long and another that is 3 m long, then together, I have 7 m of wire. It works for angles, and it works for area. When it comes to learners, though, you give us evidence that maybe Aristotle knew more than Euclid: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You are better together than you are alone. And we are better teachers and learners because of you.
Take good care of yourselves and keep in touch with us and each other. Don’t ever wonder whether there’s someone who’s cheering for you. We are, and we look forward to hearing about the next part of your journey.
[I shared this with some of my students at a luncheon celebration last month and last year.]