Tag Archives: Ralph Lelii

A Miracle of Sorts

by Ralph Lelii

I want to share a wonderful class experience I had today with the community. My students presented their Shakespearean recitations in my HL English class. Students had to don the Shakespearean hat, stand on an ersatz stage, and recite from memory. With one exception, these were not theater kids. Only two had ever memorized and recited from memory before, and none a passage of 65-70 lines.

Most of them chose the St. Crispian’s Day speech from Henry the V. For me, it is a most extraordinary passage, one which reveals Shakespeare’s unerring comprehension of human consciousness and the vagaries of the human heart.

King Harry has brought along an army to France to fight a war so he can marry a woman and thus earn him more land. The soldiers in the fight have no personal stake in it, nothing to gain in any material sense, as is the case for millions of men who have fought and died in wars across all cultures and all times. The passage rouses them to an existential epiphany, where they come to see their death as a form of honor, of transcendence.

Watching scared 17 year olds, having spent hours taking this beautiful, complex and archaic language deep into their memories and then reciting it, making it into a kind of spoken music—what literature has been since the times of Homer—is a wondrous thing. To do something hard, really hard, is to gain self-esteem, I believe, an enduring sense that one has agency in this life, that they can make a life by facing down whatever challenges are presented to them.

This was a challenge; George School provides them many challenges; it is not the only one they had today, perhaps not even the hardest one, but it was something they could not fake or avoid or BS their way through; it was a challenge they had to face or go home, and they all did it, the shy, the diffident, the lost, the confident and the haughty. It makes me so proud of them.

Here is the miracle. Scientists have charted a map of the brain’s somatosensory cortex for specific facial and oral body parts. The resulting brain activity is like a carefully tuned orchestra; each instrument section generates a specific sound, and those sounds are coordinated to produce the overall symphony. The time from a word’s identification to its travel to the mouth is 1/600 of a millisecond. What miracles these young people are—this speech, the mystery of memorization, the confrontation of the emotional lability of anticipation–wonders all. I find it astonishingly beautiful.


Henry the V: St. Crispian’s Day


WESTMORLAND. O that we now had here

But one ten thousand of those men in England

That do no work to-day!


KING. What’s he that wishes so?

My cousin, Westmorland? No, my fair cousin;

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow

To do our country loss; and if to live,

The fewer men, the greater share of honour.

God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.

By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,

Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;

It yearns me not if men my garments wear;

Such outward things dwell not in my desires.

But if it be a sin to covet honour,

I am the most offending soul alive.

No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.

God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour

As one man more methinks would share from me

For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!

Rather proclaim it, Westmorland, through my host,

That he which hath no stomach to this fight,

Let him depart; his passport shall be made,

And crowns for convoy put into his purse;

We would not die in that man’s company

That fears his fellowship to die with us.

This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,

Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,

And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

He that shall live this day, and see old age,

Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,

And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”

Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,

And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”

Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,

But he’ll remember, with advantages,

What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,

Familiar in his mouth as household words—

Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,

Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester—

Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.

This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be rememberèd-

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.


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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


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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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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