Tag Archives: Ralph Lelii

Three TEDxGeorgeSchool Speakers Announced

by Ralph Lelii, IB coordinator and English teacher

A few years ago, I read a biography of Darwin. It was long and exhaustive, and I learned a great deal, but what I took away that sticks is this simple theory. Species that survive are not necessarily the strongest, or the smartest, as is often asserted by politicians in the heat of the campaign trail, but the species that is most adaptive to the environment it inherits and shapes. If I were stranded on an island alone with a jaguar, there is no doubt who would adapt and survive, even though I can quote a certain amount of Shakespeare verbatim, even some Yeats, and the cat cannot. Continue reading

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On the Occasion of Nancy’s Retirement

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Nancy and Jack Starmer pose at the end of an All-School Assembly in honor of Nancy.

Below is the transcript of a speech given by Ralph Lelii, International Baccalaureate (IB) program director, English teacher, and Theory of Knowledge teacher at the All-Alumni Gathering celebrating Nancy Starmer during Alumni Weekend. 

Welcome Friends.

I am grateful for this opportunity to speak to you on the occasion of Nancy Starmer’s retirement. Standing here before you in May of my thirtieth year of service, I am struck by how time has tempered the faces of so many friends and former students and colleagues. Men and women I knew as adolescents sit before me today with the wizened faces of professionals, artists, and parents, the youthful and dreamy countenances of their youth replaced by more mature and thoughtful visages. It is at once striking and miraculous to see how time records its ineffable movement on these fragile bodies of ours. Most of all, though, I am struck by how, after three decades, I alone among us all seem to have remained utterly unchanged. It is quite remarkable. Continue reading

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Reflections on the Group IV IB Science Project

by Ralph Lelii, IB Coordinator and English teacher

In the Theory of Knowledge titles for May 2016, one question asks about the value we assign to knowledge based upon its application in the world, and conversely, to what degree is it diminished absent that. The title is more subtle than at first glance because the terms “application” ” value” and “diminished” need to be carefully delineated. When talking to my students about the prompt, I referenced the possible utility of considering the Group 4 science project in their responses. Continue reading

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A Commitment to Art

by Ralph Lelii, English department

When I attended the TED Conference in Vancouver last March, I was surprised by the number of presentations that involved art and design. It seemed as if every presentation drawn from science and engineering was interspersed with one that emphasized aesthetics, craft, and design. I have been watching the presentations again over the past few weeks so as not to lose them from my working memory, and this has made me aware once again of how powerfully art seems to impact our students. Continue reading

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Thoughts on Forgiveness

by Ralph Lelii, English department

I am reminded that in the fall of 1997, Chip Poston and I arranged an opening days faculty retreat on the theme of forgiveness. At the end of the activity, as I was walking up the hill, a deeply respected member of the community sidled up alongside me. She told me with great candidness that she had been moved by the experience of the day, that she had tried to let go, even momentarily, of the anger she held toward her ex-husband, but she could not do so. I remember with vivid clarity her claim that even though her inability to forgive him had deeply damaged her capacity for happiness, she could not do it, she could not forgive him.  She was tearful, thanked me for listening, and broke off on her path to another part of campus. She has since retired, and years later, at her banquet, I asked her if she had ever forgiven him. She answered no, but she had made peace with the fact that she could not.

Prior to that retreat, in the summer, I had attended a two day conference at Villanova University on forgiveness. Elie Wiesel was there, as were many spiritual and cultural luminaries, but what distinguished the conference most for me was the inclusion as speakers of many ordinary people telling stories of their own struggles to forgive. Again and again, someone would take the podium and reflect upon the difficulty of letting go of the resentment, the anger, the hurt, the betrayal. Some spoke of it as an addiction, a condition where they might feel they had forgiven a particular offense for a period of ten years, and then it would rear up again, and they would have to wrestle with it once again in some dark night of the soul. Always though, the paradox of the human condition came through: we willingly suffer unhappiness rather than surrender our unwillingness to forgive. Continue reading

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The Examined Life

by Ralph Lelii, English department

On the Sunday before Christmas, I sat in worship with my two grandchildren in the Abington Friends Meetinghouse. It had been a festive and blessed morning, complete with caroling, a roaring fire and general good cheer. Out of the silence, a Friend stood and spoke. He said that he had been angry earlier that morning and had acted in ways that made him feel ashamed. Before sitting, he said it was important that he remember that if there is to be peace on earth, it needs to begin with him.

In that ancient room, there was a feeling of gathered spiritual commitment. The spoken ministry had seemed earnest and timely, and the assembled Friends, myself included, were united in that vision of the world, one in which spiritual contemplation and its resultant action could result in a better, more ethically coherent world. It is a vision of human existence I hope my grandbabies will share, one where there is the possibility of peaceful coexistence and cooperation. Spiritual reflection often brings such hope and such rewards, but as the silence returned, my thoughts wandered away from this tranquility. Continue reading

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Thoughts on Work

by Ralph Lelii, English department

I have benefitted in myriad ways from my long association with George School, but perhaps as significant as any has been my ability to travel on many international service trips. I have been to Asia seven times, to India, and to Israel and the West Bank, and these trips enriched my life in ways that are significant and enduring.  In my experience, the spiritual qualities of the human heart and soul are quite universal, but the material and existential conditions and possibilities afforded by different cultural and political environments vary widely. Perhaps my strongest memory will be the consequences that accrue in societies where many citizens must face a life devoid of meaningful work. Continue reading

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Thoughts on the Notion of Duty

By Ralph Lelii, English department

Last week in Theory of Knowledge class, we were exploring a variety of ethical perspectives. I spent an arrangement with my students exploring deontological ethical systems, those that derive from a notion of duty, of absolute principle. It is a word we don’t use much anymore outside of military and police communities, and I think that is somewhat unfortunate. Its etymology is from the Anglo-French duete, and the old French deu, which means what is justly owed or properly given. Continue reading

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Peace

by Ralph Lelii, English department

On January 18, 1991, I was sitting in the faculty lounge grading papers with a colleague when it was announced on the radio that Saddam Hussein had launched SCUD missiles against Tel Aviv and Haifa. My acquaintance, whom I knew as a faithful Quaker, pumped his fist and said, “Yes.” One can understand his response in a number of ways, and I knew him to be deeply committed to living out the Testimonies of Friends’ Practice. War, its indiscriminate violence and cruelty, challenges us in multiple ways, and he had a deep political allegiance in that part of the world. That memory, viewed in the context of our current world crises, prompts me to reflect on our Peace Testimony and its particular challenges.

This ideal is historically grounded in our record of Margaret Fell’s declaration to King Charles II in 1660, uttered in challenge to the imprisonment of George Fox. He had been arrested in response to an armed revolt by religious radicals, and she wanted the King to know that he could have had no part in the violence.  With utter conviction Fell claimed that “All bloody principles and practices we do utterly deny, with all outward wars, and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever, and this is our testimony to the whole world. That spirit of Christ by which we are guided is not changeable…” There are no qualifications in the statement, no conditional clauses, no caveats of exemption.

Many religions have as part of their theological scaffold a commitment to peaceful coexistence, forgiveness and redemption, and a recognition that there may be times that call for spiritually righteous participation in armed conflict. In some creeds this has been called the “just war” condition.  The pacifist claim, of Margaret Fell, however, is unconditional: her claim is a denial of all war, all weapons, all strife, and therein lies the rub. Our species has evolved to construct systems of meaning which rely heavily upon abstract qualifications, subtle distinction, intellectual ambiguity and the relative merits of ethical, spiritual, and political hierarchies. This particular Quaker testimony, however, permits no sliding scale. As I read it, one cannot be a partial Pacifist, a sometimes absolutist. In a pure sense, one either is or is not a pacifist.  I think, however, that perhaps many of us struggle toward that as a spiritual goal, her words a map which is not necessarily yet the territory.

My friend and sometimes mentor Kingdon Swayne, former Clerk of Philadelphia Yearly meeting and George School historian and archivist, participated in WWII as a combatant, as did several other members of Friends Meetings to which I have belonged. Many other Quakers refused to participate in that war, either removing themselves completely or serving as medics or in other non-violent capacities. To say that all Friends are pacifists is to make, I think, a complex and inaccurate claim. I asked Kingdon once in his office if he would serve again in the military against Hitler. He said, with his usual philosophical subtlety that he would, but neither gladly or willingly, because he felt that was an evil to which he could not respond otherwise. As a caveat, he added that he still struggled with the question, probably always would.

I assume that just about every nation which has ever gone to war has had a long list of ethical, moral, and economic justifications. The Peace testimony is very difficult for me because as soon as I lay claim to it, some particular conflict comes forward and  seems to ask that I  adjust the ideal. The moment I admit an exception, though, I am no longer capable of making the claim for pacifism. The world intrudes, and in fact some peoples and cultures seem to us more violated than others, more the subjects of injustice and horror and exploitation than others, and we want, in our human essence, to right those wrongs. Fell, I think, knew that, and what she said is haunting and terribly difficult to do. There is no caveat in this testimony, no exception to the rule, and hence as a Friend I can only say that I aspire to that particular ideal, that I hope to evolve to a place where it can be simply the case.  Much as I would wish it otherwise, I am not yet there, plagued as I am by the lessons and mysteries and repetitions of history. It is also the case that I have lived my entire life free of the physical experience of war, privileged to have the time and the peace to raise my children to adulthood, to read books, to contemplate the meanings of such questions in solitude.

Margaret Fell’s words and their implications are haunting. No matter how deeply our sense of justice is affronted, no matter how cruel the hand of history or culture or national or ethnic violence, we can never be justified in responding in kind. One must wear this suit of clothes in its entirety, sans personal embellishments or omissions, yielding fully at the last to its particular and unyielding insistence.

As the human paleontologist and naturalist Loren Eisely wrote in The Night Country, we are likely still nascent in our evolutionary history, and God willing, we may a hundred thousand years hence, embrace by inclination or necessity the logic of Fell’s position. Until then, many of us will struggle in the dark night of the soul to find our way fully forward and into her Light.

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Pruning

by Ralph Lelii, English department

When I purchased my home back in 1999, my wife was pleased to discover that there was a mature pear tree on the grounds which we had overlooked in the inspection. As we moved in during late August, the tree virtually groaned with ripe pears. They were plump and unblemished, but when we picked one to taste, we were disappointed in its bitterness; it seemed as if the flesh was bereft of sugar. All of them were like this.

Puzzled, we consulted an arborist who informed us that the tree had to be pruned in order to bear the kind of fruit we wanted. Skeptical, but obedient to his expertise, we did as we were told, and miraculously, after cutting away about a third of the tree, next year’s crop was flush with sweet, ripe pears. The idea of cutting away healthy, thick plant tissue to produce healthier tissue was a strange concept for me, but after fifteen years on the property, pruning has become a fall and spring ritual for all of our plants, empirical evidence that less is indeed often more.

As children, we produce more connections-synapses- between brain cells than we need. During puberty, the body carries out a kind of neural topiary, cutting away synapses and allowing others to strengthen. As many as half of these brain junctures are cut away by our bodies, resulting in more efficient, sophisticated and richer cognitive activity. It was once believed that this pruning stopped in our late teens, but it is now accepted that this neural pruning continues into our late twenties and beyond. Quantity is sacrificed for quality, even in the physiological vineyard of the very cells that constitute human consciousness.

I thought of this sitting in MFW yesterday as I was looking at some of the senior members in my monthly meeting. One couple in particular are in their late eigthies, hale and hearty and cogent as tax attornies. They once owned a huge house, raised a family, but in their own words, consciously pruned back their lives as they reached seventy, selling off what seemed unecessary, perhaps even counterproductive, and moving into a small apartment. Both husband and wife say that the last twenty years of their lives have been the richest they can recall, the spiritual fruit of their lives laced far more heavily with the sweet and subtle scent of self-awareness and connection.

It is hard in our culture to talk about death. Often it is seen as morbid or negative and depressing, and I suspect that this social quieting makes the underlying prospect seem even more terrible and isolating. As  I sit in silence and look at the beauty of the elders in my meeting, and then glance at the inchoate longings of the children and younger members, I think perhaps that even rich souls must be pruned away to make way for new ideas, new directions, new possibilities. It is the way of things, nothing more.  Viewed in this context, death does not perhaps lose its sting entirely, but it certainly gives us a possible way of understanding it that connects us more deeply to the miraculous nature of creation, death and rebirth, its myriad cycles and processes. Death isn’t personal; it’s just the business of life.

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