When I graduated from the University of Illinois in 2004, the math department’s commencement address was given by Dr. E. Graham Evans. He was retiring that year, so he forged a bond with his audience by also being on his way out.
I never got to take a class with Dr. Evans, but I got to know him fairly well in his role as the Director of Undergraduate Studies for the math department. His job, so far as I could tell, was to listen to overly-anxious young adults fret about their studies, their personal lives, and the specters of their looming careers and to convince them that they just needed to chill out. There was no one better for the job. He would sit silently and statuesque until the poor student was finished, and then put everything in perspective with a dash of humor. He was brilliantly funny, but his wit was so dry that it rarely induced audible laughter, which somehow made it more powerful.
Dr. Evan’s address was, without a hint of hyperbole, the best speech I have heard in my life. He did not try to be especially motivational or inspirational, and he didn’t try to rouse the audience with large gestures or vocal modulations. Instead, he spoke for half an hour with the wisdom, intelligence, and humor that characterized him. He spoke memorably of the history of liberal arts education and lamented the fact that the word “quadrivial” never caught on. He acknowledged that the graduating class was likely in the process of forgetting the details of the proof of Lagrange’s Theorem, but that that was okay, because a mathematics education is not about memorization but rather about learning how to think. And he ended his speech with an appeal for the departing students, during which he was unable to hold his emotions entirely in: “Have a great life.”
The subtle cracking of his voice as he momentarily broke his stoic persona speaking those last four words has never left me. To this day, whenever I am asked to sign a student’s yearbook, I always end with “Have a great life. – NP” in homage to Dr. Evans. Somehow, at the end of it all, after all the assignments and tests and assignments and benchmarks, after all the hard work and long hours, after all the letter grades, it’s really the only thing left to say.
Last summer, I left the school I was working at (IMSA) for a new opportunity. This May, a former colleague named Mr. Ordonez mentioned that his classes were basically done – they had finished the material and taken all their exams – and so he offered to let me use a bit of his class time to send a message to his students, most of whom I’d had the year before. I thought for a couple days of what I wanted to say, but in the end, I kept it simple, just like Dr. Evans had done: I miss you, I’m proud of you, and have a great life.
I am told that the students appreciated the videos I made for their classes, but Mr. Ordonez’s own response was pretty moving:
I believe I am part of the 90% of IMSA students who will get through school and then struggle to figure out what sort of “great” impact they’ll make in the world. As much as I’d like to be recognized for some great contribution to society, that will probably not happen… I’ve come to peace with the fact that my influence on this world will be limited. Therefore, I believe my role is to make sure that the students that come through this academy know that they are appreciated and are valued, and after they leave this place, they can find happiness *outside* of external validation.
As Dr. Evans reminded us, it’s okay for students to forget the details from class, but we cannot let them leave school without knowing that we’re pulling for them.