by Ralph Lelii
When the neurologist Oliver Sachs was dying in 2015, he had written initially that he feared his imminent death. He had a sense of dread about the future, and lacked faith in what would follow his demise. As he entered stage four of his cancer, he was treated by a young Japanese-American oncologist. He wrote shortly after in his last essay that he had been changed by the experience. When he saw the care, the competence and the dedication of this young physician, he realized his arrogance. He would die confidently, in his words, that the future was safe in the hands of the young.
Each year I find proctoring the IB/AP examinations a moving experience for several reasons, but today Sach’s words resonated with me. As I watched almost eighty of our seniors engage a sophisticated literary essay for two hours, I was deeply touched by their sense of purpose and duty and the need to construct meaning from what they had read, but more than that, I was conscious of what it is we are doing here at this school, what we must do.
Every one who works on this campus, no matter her role, is participating in the survival of our species. We are communal, collaborative, and highly social creatures, and whatever else we are doing, we are passing on what we know so that we might survive beyond ourselves. The truth of it was palpable for me today as I watched them in their youthful beauty and strength struggle with that examination. Despite our pretensions as adults, their imperfections and anxieties differ from ours only in degree. Freud said that we become truly adult when we realize that our parents suffer just as much as we do. I would add the corollary observation that we fully grasp the nature of the young when we grant them the complexity, the nobility and the mystery we attribute to ourselves.
Earlier this year, I had a minor surgery, although as I learned, there really are no “minor surgeries”. They are all risky and require great precision. As I lay in the OR, I was surrounded by eleven doctors, technicians, nurses and support staff, each playing their part in this elaborate and precisely staged medical ritual. I remember thinking of all the teachers each had encountered in their youth, all the men and women they had observed in so many roles, how they had absorbed both the utility of knowledge and the sense of ethical duty that accompanies it.
Today, watching our seniors, I felt again the simple truth that the far larger share of the future belongs to them, not to us. Despite our human tendency to think that the entire universe revolves and evolves around our own consciousness (it does not), it was satisfying to know that I, like Sachs, like every one of us, am just passing through. This work we do matters so much because it is fundamentally about the survival of our species, about our continued evolution and the adaptation it necessitates; they will do well when their turn comes, perhaps even better than we. In the words of the poet Sharon Olds, it is the oldest story of the human race, the story of our replacement.