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.