St. Gregory has a wonderful tradition, pre-dating the famous “Last Lecture” of Randy Pausch but very much analagous to that famous talk, of faculty members presenting a talk at Senior Night, a talk that is framed as what they would say in their  “last lecture.” 

Dr. Scott Morris, our Chemistry teacher and Science Department chair, and my frequent collaborator on 21st century learning initiatives here at St. Gregory, delivered last night the following. 

(For last year’s talk, Finding Your Struggle by Fred Roberts, click here.)

The LAST LECTURE…. Tantalizing from an number of angles…

1) Barring some unlikely, but relatively simple, twist of fate, this is the LAST LECTURE you will get from me! (Now just hold your applause..)

2) I have tried mightily, in the last few years, to lecture less and less, and directed you to Do more.  Virtually everything I know is “out there” in the ether, and often in a more engaging format than blah, blah, blah (am I alone here?)

3) I believe that the days of the teacher centered classroom have passed, and we may be approaching the time when the actual last lecture will be given. Wow!

So, listen up and take notes if you learn best that way, but I’ll post it to the website anyway….

In the spring of 1974, I was you.  I enrolled in college in the fall, powered through my Bachelors degree in three years, earned my masters in two more, and my Ph.D. four years later.  I emerged in 1983, at the seasoned age of 26, for one brief and shining moment, one of the world’s leading authorities on soil erosion in semi-arid granitic mountain terrane [short-hand term for a tectonostratigraphic terrane, which is a fragment of crustal material formed on, or broken off from, one tectonic plate ]. I was the youngest professor at the University of Idaho, and my plan was world domination!

But convection currents in the heart kept the tectonic plates of human relations moving, and earthquakes along fault lines, and turbulent transfer in the boundary layer (as well as mixed metaphors) were inevitable.  In the end, I was forced to confront an inconvenient truth: by the time students got to college, they were beyond my power to save.  I watched freshman struggle and drop out, and bright students coast through superficial core courses, and no matter how tightly I drew the trappings of the Ivory Tower around me, and clicked my ruby slippers together, the end of that chapter was already written.  I was not changing lives, but my partner was, so there you go, and here we are.

It’s kind of comical when I think back on it– a young man so smart, and yet not wise. Yet I remain at my core, a simple bone collector.  Unable to ignore the emergent plant, the buried stick, the out-of-place cobble, the failed chemical reaction, the carapace of stretched rocks, the cloud type and position, the photon flux, and the ever-present voice in my head that chants: “The earth has a history, and every place tells a story!”  I. Just. Simply. Have. To. Know!

You should have three questions for me tonight:

1) What are the imperatives?

Clean your own house.

Tend your own yard

Wash your own car.

You will learn important things about yourself.

Begin with the end in mind.

Don’t waste food.

Love strong.

Look inward.

Be thankful everyday for hot water and refrigeration.

Make sure your emails have titles…

2) What are you proud of?

I am proud of my generous and moral children and my courageous partner.  I am proud to have been a part of the STG legacy, and I am proud of what you all will do (I guess that would be called pre-proud).  I am proud that in the 11 years I have served here, I did my best every day to make chemistry, geology, statistics, and environmental science new, personal and alive. I am proud to have kept difficult promises, and, to have lived if not small, then at least smaller than I could have. More than ever, the things that you can “do” to help the earth, are things you don’t do.

 3. What have you learned old man?

Well a lot! The constant, and often intricate ballet of kinetics and thermodynamics; the unrelenting progress of oxidation; the difficulty of digging a good hole for soil profile inspection; the troubling failings of valence bond theory (especially as it relates to paramagnetism) ; the tenuous nature of the liquid phase (and the concomitant wonder at the specialness of Earth); the power of Kinetic Molecular Theory; the amazing behavior of polydentate ligands, the difference between paper water and wet water; the saga of Western environmental history and development; the capabilities of Wolfram Alpha; the supremacy of Excel; the inadvisability of first period senior classes in the second semester…

I could go on and on (that is, in fact, your greatest fear at this moment), but I suspect that few of these things will be of lasting value to you.  So I have put together a much shorter list of 5 things that may either: save you mucho dinero, help with your future relationships, or perhaps give comfort during dark times.  In order of ascending importance, here they are:

Thing One:  A car is just a metal box with 150,000 miles inside of it.  If you take that to heart, I have just saved you probably $100,000 in the next 70 years!  That’s OK, you don’t have to thank me; you can owe me.

Thing Two: You cannot argue your way out of an argument.  I have been arguing about this with my wife for a long time.  Turns out she is right.

Thing Three:  Love changes you, but you can change love.  I think you will just have to grow into that one. But essentially it means you have some negotiating room.

Thing Four:  You can reinvent yourself; which is very cool.  I know this because I have done it, twice, and may well do it again.

AND Thing Five:  It is a big old goofy world out there, but you make your own luck, and on most days, happiness is a Choice!

Finally, a quick story (you knew it was coming)…. 

In June of 1982 my wedding day approached.  Lisa and I decided to have the ceremony on top of the First Flatiron in Boulder, Colorado.  It was an easy two pitch climb and almost all our friends were climbers of at least modest ability, so we anticipated no problems. Finding a “preacher,” however, did present a  problem.  Turned out that one of my aquaintances had a doctor of divinity degree from some mail order house.  He was also a climber of considerable skill, had a big personality, and was delighted to perform the ceremony.

At that time, in that place, you wrote your own vows, and so Lisa and I thought it would be a good idea to get together with the Right Reverend Randall Cerf and plan the big event. We met at a diner on 28th street for breakfast, and made small talk until everyone ordered.  Before we could get the conversation going, Reverend Cerf looked at us with an uncharacteristic serious expression and declared:

“You know, there is a difference between being involved and being committed!”  I was thinking: Whoa! That’s a little weird coming from this guy, but before I could get anything out, he continued:

“It’s just like what you are having for breakfast, Scott.”  I probably looked dumbfounded.  “What did you order?”  Finally I was able to respond:  “The same as you: eggs, sausage, toast, potatoes, coffee.”

“That’s just what I mean,” he said.  “You see, the chicken was involved with your breakfast, but the pig, baby, he was committed.

So, Commit yourselves, and Go! Go! Go!

photo: Alex Lunt’11