NHS Induction Ceremony Speech by Bill Lemei

Posted by: Erin Rowan 3 years, 9 months ago

NHS Induction Ceremony Speech by Bill Lemei

NHS Speech 5/11/17 - Bill Lemei


I want to thank Even Arnold, outgoing president of the National Honor Society, for inviting me, on behalf of the organization’s members, to talk with you this evening. 


Last week was the first week of AP testing, which at CHS means that many of our AP teachers also staged their final exams in the preceding week or weeks.  If I made a word wall from overheard student conversations last week, “stress” would have earned the largest point size.  I always listen to what my students are saying.  That’s how I learn.


At the moment I teach a lot of physics.  In studying physics I have learned that stress is the force per unit area applied to a material. The maximum stress a material can stand before it breaks is called the breaking stress or ultimate tensile stress. Tensile means the material is under tension. The applied forces are trying to stretch the material.  Every day I come to school with the goal of stretching my students’ minds.  I guess I could be considered a stressor.


Living on the surface of the earth near sea level, our species is subject to an incredible amount of air pressure due to the mass of atmosphere that is stacked up on top of us.  Here in Coronado that works out to be about 100,000 Newtons per square meter or around 14.7 lbs per square inch.  To create space for our bodies on this planet we have had to summon the strength to push out against this force every day since we a fragile single cell.  Despite the ongoing enormity of this challenge, I have adapted so completely that this pressure makes but a tiny imprint on my daily musings.  Our atmosphere pressures me and I push back with equal measure.  I have reached equilibrium with our atmosphere.


I talk with my students about equilibrium a great deal.  I think equilibrium is great.  Balance in life seems to nurture the spirit and the mind and the body.  Physics teaches me that the concept of equilibrium can be analyzed with remarkable simplicity.  No net torques and no net forces.  Grossly simplified that means no twisting and no pulling or pushing.  But an easily overlooked key word here is “net.”  It turns out that all (and I really mean all) equilibrium is dynamic.  I only get to lie blissfully and motionless on my bed because my bed is pushing back on me with a force that balances the force with which the earth is attracting me.  Even the apparent stillness in our lives is the result of pushes and pressures.


There are areas in my life where I feel very much out of equilibrium.  I know the exponentially trending saw-tooth Keeling curve of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is real.  I know that the surface ice on Greenland is melting.  I know that the acreage of summer ice in the artic is dwindling and that the western ice shelf in Antarctica appears to be in the early stages of collapse.  I know that the world’s human population was estimated to be under 2.4 billion when I was born and that the estimate stands at 7.5 billion today.   I know that my generation is the first in history to see a tripling of the count of our species in one lifetime.  The Department of Agriculture says that over 13 million children, we’re talking children here, live in food insecure households in the US alone.  If you are feeling up to it, google how many individuals on the planet live in food insecurity. 

There is no alternative to these facts.  They are like air pressure.  But I have yet to learn how to balance my existence against them with the same grace with which I appear to handle air pressure.  I believe the same is true of my students.  The Internet has certainly offered the privilege of knowing more but at the price of the burden of knowing more.  How can we not be stressed by these realities which we all know to be (and please excuse trite parallelism here) the tip of the iceberg?


I think this is a question that all people of privilege such as we are grappling with today.  I believe it is an obligation of people in first world countries to face these questions.  The folks living in other countries are mostly and rightfully preoccupied with the daily tasks of daily survival.  I’m just trying to suggest tonight that this knowledge creates a pressure, just like air pressure, for which there are really, literally, only two options: find a balancing force or get crushed.  When I have the time in physics I do a demonstration where I use water vapor to evacuate a good portion of the air from inside a soda can and we all watch the can get crushed by the surrounding air as the vapor condenses.  The message from the universe seems clear.  Whether you are a soda can or a human, balance the forces that impinge upon you or get crushed.


So much for the emotionally uplifting part of my talk.  Solutions to all of this escape me, but I have a few humble observations that might suggest where or how to look for direction.  I think it is vitally important, maybe even a necessity for spiritual survival, for each of us to begin to account for the background radiation that our relatively new knowledge of the real state of affairs on this planet has created.  Smart phones have turned each of us into potential journalists.  Our minds can’t hide from the power of video.  Ignorance is not bliss but education and information is not necessarily bliss either.  Life ain’t always bliss.  But it must be helpful for each of us to account for the burden of the background radiation of pain and uncertainty that we are now carrying.  Self-knowledge is always the beginning.  We are carrying this psychic weight – let’s account for it. 


I know of only two mechanisms for dealing with a problem, escape it or face it.  Since I believe there is really no escape from anything, though at times I feebly try by just blanking things out, I usually end up praying for open eyes and the courage to face up to my problems.  If I let myself feel powerless, if I believe that one vote doesn’t matter, that one voice will always be drowned out by the mob and that one person can’t change the world then I am lost.  If I give credence to all those marginalizing aphorisms that are chanted daily proclaiming my insignificance, then I am doomed. 


But I believe that one person can impact the lives of two people.  I believe that one person can be kind to two other people, help two other people, and nurture two other lives.  I believe that and I believe that those two people could do the same for two other people and so on and so on.  And if I can remember the pattern for the sum of a finite geometric series from Integrated Math III, then I can calculate that after less than 33 iterations of that kindness everyone in the world could be touched by the propagation of that one initial act.  Nothing is more real to a physics teacher than waves.  Waves are energy that is carried from one place to another through a medium without any net displacement of the medium.  We all can be that medium.  Kindness, compassion and helpfulness can be that wave, that energy.  We all have the potential to be powerful almost beyond our imagination.  Just do the math and you can know it for certain.  And maybe, just maybe, we can find in the actualization of that power a force which can balance the stress of the background radiation of pain.  We need to have faith in the transformative power of touching those near to us with acts of love.  We need to know that there are no small acts of love.  We need to realize that we are not powerless. 


And that’s my last thought for tonight.  Our species is facing some serious challenges.  Some stress is justified and real.  Account for it.  And individual power is real.  Account for that too.  And then ask, as Mary Oliver does in one of her poems, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”


Thank you for this opportunity to share this evening with you.