A Silent Salute

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I love and hate that tributes to those we lose can be so eloquent. We can max out profundity and pretty words, inspiring tears and shivers, yet eloquence ends at the grave. We say these words, share these memories, but you’re still gone.

And we will continue with our lives, and slowly forget.

I guess that’s why funerals are more for the living than the dead. The tributes we pay are closure for us, even if they are infuriatingly, eloquently inadequate. But we have no other means. So here are mine.

You taught calculus and not poetry, but you were a type of John Keating—Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society—even though my friends thought you looked like Brad Pitt. Not that that’s an insult by any means.

I remember how you loved astronomy, and that was fitting for a man who lived with such fervor. The world couldn’t confine your spirit to a small blue orb spinning in a galaxy spinning in a universe spinning in infinity. Funny, you might have been the first one to teach me about infinity, outside of Scripture and church and the infinitude of God. I remember hearing it in your classroom, probably on a dreary gray morning, when you introduced asymptotes and limits, and bewilderment shot the sleep out of our eyes.

Why do we wait until someone is gone to remember, and realize the little things were really the big things? I can feel the years standing between then and now, with the space, the distance, the merciless drumbeat of time. Yet it also feels like yesterday, with the memory pressed so close.

You must have believed in strong ripple effects, and if not, your life has contradicted you. I wonder if that is why you chose a small classroom in a quiet suburb. Because I scrolled through your Facebook page today and saw generations of lives you touched, some that came before me, and some after. I read silently and left, unable and afraid to think of words to leave you in such a public place, but inspired by those who did. Instead, I scrolled through my old photos to graduation and found the one I took with you.

You, with your strong smile and hairstyle we poked fun at. Me, in my cap and gown, grinning with genuine unconsciousness of adulthood and its trials.

I stared at the picture for a while, thinking of how it marked an ending. The close of one chapter, and the start of another. I wish I visited more, kept in touch, after I left. I wish you had more real estate on the pages that followed.

I don’t think you were the Facebook stalker type—that belongs proudly to our generation—so here’s a brief summary for you: I went off to chase sunshine and dreams in California. Found some and lost some. I still laugh a lot, and at dumb things, but the smiles have stretched over a few more scars. Which is okay. The battle wounds of adulthood are bearable because of strong refuges. Like memories of your pi jokes and class pranks and juvenile things that remind me how good it was to be a kid, and how to savor the present before it’s gone.

I still make impulsive decisions sometimes, and that’s partly why I’m doing a graduate degree in engineering. When I took Optimization last year, I understood my professor about 10% of the time, and I owe a large part of that to someone who taught me well so I could still do derivatives years later like it was second nature. I’d get stumped after that, but thanks for the partial credit. This time, the kudos goes to your teaching, and not my begging.

John Keating and my old English teacher used to tell us Carpe Diem. Seize the day. You never said the words, too busy making lessons and helping the helpless—which were most high school students sitting in a math class. You never had to say the words because your life said it all.

You Carpe’d the hell out of every Diem.

I don’t like goodbyes as much as gratitude, so I will simply say thank you—

Thank you for teaching (so tirelessly).
Thank you for believing (that it doesn’t take a genius to survive math).
Thank you for sharing that one video (I still share with friends to make them laugh).
Thank you for accepting our insanity (and sharing your own).
Thank you for being kind (to the difficult and the downtrodden).
Thank you for your courage (in sickness and in health).

Thank you for the memories.

If I was back in your old classroom, I would—don’t laugh—stand on my desk in a silent salute to you.

Oh captain, my captain.

Inspiration 101

“Oh Captain my captain!”

I watched Dead Poet’s Society a few days ago for the second time, and it was even better than I remembered. Robin Williams was gold as Mr. Keating, and I didn’t fully appreciate before what a stellar supporting cast he had (Ethan Hawke? Josh Charles? well, I had no idea who these people were when I watched it in high school). The story builds up to a tragedy, but it is not without humor and triumph. It is innocent, but not naïve; philosophical, but accessible; wise, but not preachy.

It made me wonder about the stories that inspire us. What springboards something from unremarkable to unforgettable? I thought it was one of those hazy, hard-to-define things but I wanted to pinpoint a few key elements. You could say some stories just have it, a mysterious, magical X factor, but crafting a good tale isn’t like waving a wand. So I thought through my favorite books and films and came away with some common themes.

A hero who overcomes what we cannot

The stories that take a step beyond the plane of reality give themselves the liberty to create a larger-than-life protagonist: someone who can fight the battles and lead the charges that ordinary people can only dream of. They stand against seemingly insurmountable odds, and they sometimes stand alone (or at least vastly outnumbered). Basically, every superhero movie or fantasy novel where good defeats evil in a glorious spectacle.

They are the characters we will never be, but they move us with their valor and nobility. We may not have their abilities, but we can aspire to live with the same spirit.

A hero who overcomes a relatable weakness

I think there’s a large class of people that we’d look down on in the streets, but we’d love if we found them between the pages of a book.

While we’d all like to be crushing villains and taking names, most of us are fighting smaller, invisible battles each day. We’re frail, breakable, and often barely holding things together. When we don’t know someone’s heart, it’s easy to judge by appearance. That’s the wonderful thing about stories—they teach us what is often hidden behind facades in real life. They make us cheer for the poor, geeky outcast who, let’s be honest, not many of us would have befriended in real life. They make us fall in love with a man who few would probably tolerate the company of (yes, you, Mr. Darcy).

Awkwardness. Fear of what people think. Anger over irrational issues. Relationship problems. When we find characters beating the challenges we face ourselves, it inspires us to keep fighting too.

A vision of the future that is better than today’s reality

Hope and hopelessness, the two opposite ends of the spectrum, are both capable of instigating reckless actions. Our society is familiar with the latter. Desperate men with nothing to lose can do an extraordinary amount of damage.

But hope can lead to reckless living too—in a good way. Paul was utterly sold out for Christ because he believed in the deepest part of him that his present suffering could not compare to the glories to come. In fiction, this may be best seen in fantasy or sci-fi. Heroes who refuse to live under a shadow of evil or fear, who will give their all for the sake of a brighter future.

Hope can make humanity rise above a bleak reality.

Style

Style without substance is meaningless. But substance without style can range from boring to terrible. Style binds good substance together and makes it shine.

There are stories with all the “right” elements jammed in but executed poorly. Not going to name names, but we all know the ones that had so much potential in character or premise—and they flopped.

And there are some stories that are made great by their stylistic choices. If The Book Thief were narrated by anyone else, it would not be as brilliant. Probably still a decent story, but not stunning or truly set apart. Every single human being has many ordinary stories they can tell. Only a few become classics, and while it’s most often what you have to say, how you say it can also set the literary world spinning.

So…lights! Pens! Action! What inspires you? That, to me, is one of the great purposes of art and storytelling. We don’t create fiction in a vacuum: we create to reflect reality and inspire people to live more boldly and compassionately.

Carpe diem!