Math and Physics teacher Mr. Bill Lemei speaks at National Honor Society Induction Ceremony, 2016Posted by: Erin Rowan 4 years, 9 months ago
Math and Physics teacher Mr. Bill Lemei was the speaker at last night's National Honor Society Induction Ceremony. We offer you the opportunity to read his remarks here. Enjoy!
Good evening friends,
It is almost a tradition to open even a brief talk such as mine by acknowledging that it is an honor to be asked to speak at such an occasion. It most certainly is. I could begin by saying something like “It’s an honor to be so honored by the CHS chapter of the National Honor Society.” Seems like almost a no-brainer way to get off to a good start. That was my original plan.
That was my original plan before I fell into a black hole. It was not that I was overcome by the gravity of the situation – that’s what passes as cosmological humor in my physics class – but it was that I was sort of frozen by the word “honor.” Obviously it’s kind of important. I noticed you even use it in the name of your organization. I had the thought that it might even be central to what this organization is about.
I was frozen by the realization that I might not have a clear idea as to the meaning of the word. A potentially embarrassing admission from a teacher who has all his students write and sign a class honor code before every exam. How to resolve such a question? Google it of course.
At least half an hour and many unblocked pop-ups later, I became intrigued by a definition from the 1913 edition of Webster’s Dictionary. (Bear in mind that as a teacher I strive to stay current in my sources). Here’s what I found:
Honor: A nice sense of what is right, just, and true, with course of life correspondent thereto; strict conformity to the duty imposed by conscience, position, or privilege; integrity; uprightness; trustworthiness. (Webster’s 1913)
I was caught by the “strict conformity to the duty imposed by conscience, position or privilege” part of the definition. And for getting barbed on that hook, I have to thank Christopher Song, CHS class of 2012, Pomona College class of 2016, and former secretary to this NHS chapter. In 2011 he posted an article to eCoronado entitled “CHS NHS: What it means to be a member.” I had already read his posting by the time I made it to 1913 Webster’s. With reference to the four pillars of NHS (which for the newbie members here tonight are scholarship, leadership, character, and service) Christopher says: “The final quality (service) ties the other three together in that NHS members use their hard work, talent, and skill to serve the community.”
I think he gets this exactly right. I love his idea that a sense of duty to community is the binding energy of NHS.
I’m going to appear to digress. Our home rock is about 4.5 billion years old; some primitive forms of life appeared about 3.8 billion years ago and we started speaking to each other about 60,000 years ago. If I scale those 3.8 billion years of life on this planet to one day, then on that scale the 60,000 year span of the modern form of our species works out to be about 1.3 seconds. The math is clear; we are very very much newbies here; our continued happy food chain dominance on this planet is far from assured. Case in point: I deeply want to believe that we can hold the average increase in global temperature to under the 1.5 degrees Celsius benchmarked by the recent Paris climate accords, but I am shaken by studies that show the rate of global temperature change may be accelerating substantially and that that modest goal may already be out of reach. Our situation is precarious. I believe the quality of our future is going to depend in large measure on our sense of community. I believe our sense of community is the secret sauce that gives our fragile species at least a fighting chance to be more than a brief tick on the clock of time. How well will we work with one another? How well will we care for one another? To quote Christopher again: what ties the pillars of NHS together is to use “hard work, talent, and skill to serve the community.”
I reached back billions of years in time because I don’t see our species as separate from our planet; I see humanity as an outgrowth of our planet. To paraphrase Alan Watts, I think some planets people in the same way that some flowers blossom. It’s all connected - humans and the planet - we all share a common “huplanity” if you will let me fuse the words humanity and planet to make my point - and I find it very helpful to live with an awareness of that connection at the forefront of my mind.
In case my digressions have caused you to lose the thread, here’s 1913 Webster’s definition of honor again: “strict conformity to the duty imposed by conscience, position or privilege.”
I’m not really a “strict conformity” kind of guy, but I certainly have position and privilege. I live in a safe and nurturing community. I have more than comfortable shelter in which to sleep. I have no worries about where my next meal in coming from and confidence in the quality of the water I have to drink. Very definite signs of position and privilege.
I do not mean my life is always easy. Of course not. But I have many advantages compared to most brother and sister humans on this planet. And according to 1913 Webster’s there is a duty imposed by position and privilege and it is in rising to that duty that I can find honor. It is in committing to that duty that each of us can find an authentic path to honor.
When I was in high school - I mean the first time - when I was a teenager - I felt like I had all of the time in the world in front of me. Of course I knew I would die someday, but time was far less precious to the teenage Bill Lemei than it is to the almost septuagenarian Bill Lemei. I often read a poem by Mary Oliver to my graduating seniors. It ends by asking “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?” I ask myself that question many times every day. At the moment the answer keeps coming back something like this: Care for my family, care for my community, realize that my community is my family, care for my country, realize that my country is my community, care for my planet, realize that my planet is my country is my community is my family.
So here’s the bottom line and then I’m done. If you have privilege and position (and by any global metric I would say all of us here tonight do) then according to 1913 Webster’s and according to Christopher Song you’ve got duties to attend to if you desire an honorable life. Of course take care of yourself, but you also have a duty to your community. And just what is this ‘community’ thing? In my manner of understanding there is no tangible boundary attached to the word community. I encourage you to resist being limited or confused by intellectually constructed borders such as “my school or my city.” As you live, see how far you can stretch the boundaries that define your sense of community. Find the largest radius that your heart can hold. And one day you might find there is no more radius at all and no more circumference to bind you. That your heart can hold all of us and all of the world. That you can make manifest your own sense of huplanity.
The ability to change the world in sweeping ways is not given to us. But we can change it a bit at a time. We all lead by example, consciously or not. Watch graduating senior Danirose Hill hand deliver a sandwich to a homeless person living on the sidewalks of San Diego. Watch graduating senior D’amy Steward work to protect the oceans that nurture us all. Consider my friend, a former elementary school teacher, who is approaching the end of her life entombed in dementia. She worked for years in a district less economically advantaged than ours. Daily her students arrived hungry, not just for knowledge, but for food. She used part of every paycheck to feed them food first.
All actions do matter. Enormous structures can be, and need to be, built one brick at a time. Enormous problems can be ameliorated one action at a time. Don’t buy the lie that we can’t change the world. Just work on the problem one sandwich at a time. And place your trust in that 1913 Webster’s definition of honor as interpreted by Christopher Song: “Service is what ties it all - what ties us all - together.”
Thank you Danielle and all NHS members for inviting me to be part of this wonderful event tonight.Share on Twitter Share on Facebook