Thank you Principal Wasserman and hello students of Roosevelt High School.
I know a lot of you were expecting Dr. Richard Chase, but he was… ahh.. unexpectedly tied up at the last minute. I am his replacement. Some of you may know me as one of the rich and powerful, but I have been many things in my life; a writer, a teacher, a friend, or a street performer that one time, which I don’t really enjoy talking about anymore. I have live a varied and strange life, and for all the students sitting in your uncomfortable plastic folding chairs today, I only have one thing to say. I hope you took calculus, because of all the subjects I took in high school that was probably the one that had the most value.
I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking it too when I was your age. “Calculus? When are we ever going to need this?”
Well listen closely, my imaginary eighteen year old self, and listen good, because you seriously overlooked the benefits of this strange and difficult form of mathematical martial arts. For instance, modern calculus was developed in part by Sir Isaac Newton to explain the motions of the stars. Without it we would still be mystified by the movement of the moon and the sun, and forget ever having sent up astronauts or satellites. That means you would not have smart phones, the very things you are all currently checking instead of paying attention to my very important speech.
“But I don’t want to be an astronaut or an engineer or to pay attention to your speech. I am going to be a liberal arts major. I don’t need calculus.”
Oh, my imaginary eighteen year old self, you truly have the world figured out. Obviously, because that liberal arts degree will prove invaluable in the years to come, and as important as it is to be able to quote Foucault or learn the proper structure of a compound sentence, calculus offered you something much more, the benefit of hard work. You see, I can’t remember a quadrilateral from a quadratic equation, or if there is even a difference between those things. However, I do remember the nights I spent struggling through my homework and sweating over my tests.
The reason why so many students don’t like calculus is because it’s hard. The answers are not always apparent. In fact, they may not even be a real number, just something like “f over 5x.” Calculus sucks, it’s difficult to understand, it makes your want to shut your brain down, and just give up. In that way, it is a lot like life.
Going forward you will find that it is a rarity for life to hand you anything. If you have a famous name or wealthy parents, good for you, but those still aren’t guarantees to success or even happiness. Whether you go to an Ivy League school or a local community college, you will have to work. You will be challenged and that is good, because that is life. You get out of it, what you put into it.
Life is calculus. You have to work for what you want, every day, and sometimes you will find yourself fighting an uphill battle against forces you may not fully understand. As long as you endure, as long as you continue to sit in front of that problem, pencil in hand, not afraid to show your work, and fighting through the annoyance and the frustration even when that voice in the back of your mind is telling you to just “give up,” I promise you you will make it through. You may not always get the result you expected, but you will get a result. Happily ever afters aren’t made through luck or happenstance, they are created by hard work and determination, because just like in math the answers aren’t always apparent, nor straight-forward.
Sometimes two plus two won’t always equal four, at least in the metaphorical sense. Life is complex and obscure and sometimes incredibly unforgiving. As much as you will sometimes wish it was all about simple addition, such as “a college degree + eagerness to work = a job,” or “love the of a person + love of another person = equals happy marriage,” but that is rarely the case. There are a lot of bumps on the road a life, a lot of variables in the equation of existence. Life is dominated by the X factor. Part of success is learning to identify the unknowns, and even then you may not always be able to solve for X, only narrow it down.
Maybe you can figure out that X equals 7y or that X equals that cute guy at work that you can see yourself spending the rest of your life with. The one that made you rethink your plans on taking that job on the other side of the country. Maybe X equals that happy accident that results in a beautiful new child you never thought you wanted. And maybe X is even that visit to the doctor where you got the terrible news you never believed you would ever hear, but the more you learn about it the more confident you are that you can solve it.
Life doesn’t move from point A to point B to Point C. It rarely follows your blueprints or pays any attention to your wants. Life doesn’t take place form 9 to 5. It can happen suddenly at 3 in the morning or gradually over the course of twenty years, but it does happen and with little warning or little caring to your desires or opinions. John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans,” a fact that was driven home for him on December 8 in the year 1980, when he was killed by a crazed gunman in new York, the ultimate X factor. Our old friend, Isaac Newton would respond, “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people,” which brings me to my last point. Sometimes there is no answer. Sometimes you will fail.
That is incredibly frustrating, I know. It is not something you want to hear on a day of such joy and accomplishment, but it is part of life. Yet, that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless, quite the opposite in fact. Failure is part of life and it is part of the process of learning. If we didn’t fail we would never be able to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Ask your math teachers. You don’t learn calculus by getting it all right the first time. You learn it by sifting through your wrong answers to discover the correct ones. Life is as much about how we endure in failure as it is how we succeed at what we want. In fact, I would argue that true character and true purpose is found not in the light of triumph but in the forge of defeat. Calculus teaches us how to fail, but it also teaches us that it is not something to be afraid of.
Once you lose your fear of something, like failure, it no longer has power over you. When you are not afraid of tackling the big problems of life and math, than the world opens up to. It is those problems, the seemingly insurmountable ones, the ones that seem as imposing as a skyscraper or elusive as a wisp of smoke, the ones that seem to have no solutions, which are the most important to tackle. They expand your mind, force you to think in new ways, and to me it says something about a person who would rather take on the hard questions, face the impossible, rather than taking the easy route. I have no interest in someone who believes it is better to succeed at the safe questions than risk an attempt at the difficult ones. I’d much rather keep company with people who believe in failing at spectacular things, at least they will be more interesting to talk to.
So whether you have taken calculus, algebra, statistics, literature, intro to music, or air conditioning repair, I hope you have found yourself challenged in big and small ways, because you are about to face the greatest challenge of all, life. And, I want to urge you all to do something everyday that frustrates or scares you, because life is about climbing mountains. You won’t always reach the peak, but there is value in the effort. You will never regret the attempt or even the failure.
So, let me leave you with this last bit of advice. In this life you will face X factors, tragedies, variables, and possibilities. You can’t control those. The only thing you can control is the effort you put into a task, and maybe how much calculus you choose use in your life.
Thank you, and if anyone is passing by the second floor janitor’s closet after this, maybe just pop your head in and untie Dr. Chase. I left him some water so he should be fine for the next hour or so. Thank you, again.