The text for my remarks at WRA on Oct. 20, 2014 ...
Fall Academic Awards
Western Reserve Academy
20 October 2014
Never Invite an Old Guy to Speak
I know what some of you are thinking—Hey, that’s the Old Guy who hangs out at Open Door Coffee! Yep, ‘tis I. And now I’m going to demonstrate why you should never invite an Old Guy to speak.
I’d like to thank Mrs. Chlysta for inviting me here today—I’m so grateful for the opportunity to wear a necktie again after two-and-a-half years!
Okay, let’s be more mature … here goes: I’ve spoken from this podium many times—and it’s never ceased being an honor. It’s nice, too, to see some of my former colleagues—and students. I taught Mrs. Borrmann in English I, Mr. Ong in English III; they both still owe me homework. And Mr. Burner was a senior when I first taught here in 1979–80. But I won’t tell you what I know about him … Well, maybe for money.
And, as I said, I sort of know some of you from Open Door, where I hang out in the morning. As a former teacher, it makes me feel good—hopeful—to see students studying. Caring. (Makes me feel even better to realize I don’t have to grade any of it!)
A quick story. Just last month my mom turned 95, and I was telling her that I’d agreed to speak here today, but for various reasons I wasn’t sure that I could go through with it. She looked at me sadly, perhaps remembering I was her idiot child, and said, “Danny, the day will come when no one will ask you to speak, so you probably ought to do it.”
Mom—still wise at 95. Still annoyingly wise. So here I am.
I need to apologize to Mrs. Chlysta, too, because in a minute I’m going to talk about math—and that could get embarrassing. You see, I never exactly excelled at it. I sort of bumbled and stumbled and grumbled through high school math, but when—a college freshman—I took calculus, I was lost from Day One. I was Bilbo in Mirkwood. And huge spiders were everywhere. On one of my miserable tests, my professor actually wrote this: “Can I help you cry?”
That was nice. But, actually, no—you can not help me cry! Crying is not a team sport. Yes, there is no i in team, but there is one in crying!
When I was teaching English III here, the word evanescent always appeared on my vocabulary list—yes, I was one of those. Vocab lists and quizzes! What a jerk of a teacher! Anyway … evanescent … vanishing, fading away.
In one way, evanescence is the nature of all life, isn’t it? Creatures come into the world, they mature (well, most of us do—my mom’s not so sure about me!), they weaken, they die. A day passes, a month, a year. Many years. Centuries. Millennia. And, today, relatively few folks from centuries ago manage even to elbow their way out onto the tiny stage of our common memory. Homer. Alexander. Cleopatra. Henry VIII. Shakespeare.
Speaking of whom: Have you been following the stories about the bones of King Richard III, recently discovered under a parking lot in Leicester, England? They’d lain there, forgotten, since 1485. At the Battle of Bosworth Field, about fourteen miles away, he’d been slain by his successors, the Tudors, whose spectacular queen, Elizabeth I, about 100 years later, would be on the throne when Shakespeare’s play Richard III premiered in 1592, a play that features, near the end, Bosworth Field with Richard, surrounded by enemies, crying out, “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Didn’t work out. He ended up underneath a lot constructed for—ironically—horseless carriages. And soon—playing Richard III—Benedict Cumberbatch!
Anyway, you may ask, “How do we know those parking lot bones are Richard’s?” By the DNA of a living descendent—that’s how.
So … let’s think a moment about our own DNA, our own family histories. We can name our two parents. Our four grandparents. But pretty soon things get tricky, don’t they? Can we name all eight of our great-grandparents … sixteen great-great grandparents … thirty-two great-great-great grandparents … sixty-four … one hundred twenty-eight … two hundred fifty-six … five hundred twelve … (See, I can multiply!) But things quickly get unmanageable after a few generations, so even though those people were directly responsible for our being here, right now, we probably don’t know a single thing about any of them—not even their names. (To make a selfie, your very-long-ago ancestors would have needed to chisel a rock!) But we do know one thing about these ancestors, though—their evanescence. And—their anonymous permanence. We don’t know who they were, but pearls of them—both perfect and flawed—are strung along our chromosomes, helping make us who we are.
So, let’s think about this for a moment: At Shakespeare’s time (1564–1616) each of you would have had approximately a thousand direct ancestors. Five hundred specific men and 500 specific women would have had to find one another and hook up—successfully—for you to be sitting in this chapel 400 years later. And then, of course, all subsequent (and relevant) children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren from those Shakespearean-era ancestors would have had to have survived war, famine, illness, injury, accident, folly. Senior pranks. If a single one of them had failed to survive before he or she reproduced … well, let’s just say that it’s virtually impossible that you’re sitting out there.
Are you feeling depressed yet? (This is another of the reasons you must never invite an Old Guy to speak!) Knowledge can do that, you know—knock the wind out of you. Depress you. Terrify you.
But … good news … it can also inspire you. Animate you to make some graceful and unique moves in your dance to the music of Time.
So let’s move on to this. The late Cornell astrophysicist Carl Sagan once wrote, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” … I like that: We’re all starstuff—actually, not just metaphorically.
We are gathered here today to celebrate some varieties of that starstuff. To commend those among you, who—consciously or unconsciously—have realized that time is short, precious, precarious, unpredictable … evanescent. And you have decided that—while starlight is flooding through your window—you will make sure that soft glow illuminates something wonderful and wondrous—your potential, your fragile, unpredictable, miraculous lives.
So many of you are doing that—in myriads of ways. Making your time matter. And so today we congratulate you, and I wish for you—for all of you—that starlight will continue to gleam upon your lovely, improbable lives for a long, long, long time.