Becoming Kinder

The  theme for our Y12 tutor group is practicing and promoting gratitude and kindness. As such,  I shared the following article with my  Y12 tutor group, after which I asked them to share their thoughts. Some were sad for Ellen, whilst others felt very inspired. However, the overwhelming response from my students was of course lovely, they felt inspired to be kinder.  I hope you too enjoy Mr. Saunders’s speech and that it helps you to replace your SELF with LOVE. 

George Saunders’s Advice to Graduates


George Saunders
George SaundersCredit Damon Winter/The New York Times

The entire speech, graduation season or not, is well worth reading, and is included below.

Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).

And I intend to respect that tradition.

Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?” And they’ll tell you. Sometimes, as you know, they’ll tell you even if you haven’t asked. Sometimes, even when you’ve specifically requested they not tell you, they’ll tell you.

So: What do I regret? Being poor from time to time? Not really. Working terrible jobs, like “knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse?” (And don’t even ASK what that entails.) No. I don’t regret that. Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in which I was swimming, with my mouth open, naked? And getting deathly ill afterwards, and staying sick for the next seven months? Not so much. Do I regret the occasional humiliation? Like once, playing hockey in front of a big crowd, including this girl I really liked, I somehow managed, while falling and emitting this weird whooping noise, to score on my own goalie, while also sending my stick flying into the crowd, nearly hitting that girl? No. I don’t even regret that.

But here’s something I do regret:

In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.

So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” — that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”

Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.

And then — they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.

One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.

End of story.

Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.

But still. It bothers me.

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

Now, the million-dollar question: What’s our problem? Why aren’t we kinder?

Here’s what I think:

Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).

Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.

So, the second million-dollar question: How might we DO this? How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?

Well, yes, good question.

Unfortunately, I only have three minutes left.

So let me just say this. There are ways. You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter. Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition — recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard — it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include . . . well, everything.

One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish — how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”

And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE. If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit. That’s one reason your parents are so proud and happy today. One of their fondest dreams has come true: you have accomplished something difficult and tangible that has enlarged you as a person and will make your life better, from here on in, forever.

Congratulations, by the way.

When young, we’re anxious — understandably — to find out if we’ve got what it takes. Can we succeed? Can we build a viable life for ourselves? But you — in particular you, of this generation — may have noticed a certain cyclical quality to ambition. You do well in high-school, in hopes of getting into a good college, so you can do well in the good college, in the hopes of getting a good job, so you can do well in the good job so you can . . .

And this is actually O.K. If we’re going to become kinder, that process has to include taking ourselves seriously — as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers. We have to do that, to be our best selves.

Still, accomplishment is unreliable. “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.

So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf — seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things — travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

And someday, in 80 years, when you’re 100, and I’m 134, and we’re both so kind and loving we’re nearly unbearable, drop me a line, let me know how your life has been. I hope you will say: It has been so wonderful.

Congratulations, Class of 2013.

I wish you great happiness, all the luck in the world, and a beautiful summer.


TED: Nicholas Stern-The State of Climate and what we might do about it

“How can we begin to address the global, insidious problem of climate change — a problem that’s too big for any one country to solve? Economist Nicholas Stern lays out a plan, presented to the UN’s Climate Summit in 2014, showing how the world’s countries can work together on climate. It’s a big vision for cooperation, with a payoff that goes far beyond averting disaster. He asks: How can we use this crisis to spur better lives for all (”?



Chalk it Up! Year 7 chalk drawings of organs and organ systems

Taking learning outdoors is always an enjoyable experience! In order to enhance understanding about organs and organ systems Year 7 students were asked to create chalk drawings the human body. They were thrilled with the activity and loved their creations! Collage_20141028-065918_edit


The ‘Graphic Art’ of Reviewing Protein Synthesis

Another fantastic example of how visual notes can work to enhance learning! Year 12 Biology students were asked to create a cartoon to depict their understanding of transcription and translation. As you can see, their work is a colorful indicator of making science ‘fun’ in the classroom! They absolutely LOVED writing and creating their cartoon on the chalkboard! Visual Notes=Protein Synthesis 1visual notes-protein synthesis 2

Year 7 Cell Models

In order to demonstrate their knowledge of cell organelles, Year 7 students were asked to create a model using any materials. Some students created their models out of cake, some used hair gel and others cut open a squash and created their organelles. Needless to say the creativity was amazing and they LOVED presenting their final work. Year 7 Cell Models

Oldest genitals found. Went out of fashion for eons

If you’re going through a dry patch, it’s nothing compared to the entire animal kingdom – which appears to have gone millions of years without copulating. A new analysis of 380-million-year-old fossils tucked away in boxes in museums is rewriting the textbooks on the origins of sex and genitalia. It shows genitals started out bony, were used sideways, and then copulation went out of fashion for tens of millions of years.

John Long from Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and colleagues have found fossil evidence that one of the earliest jawed vertebrates calledMicrobrachius dicki – from a group known as gnathostomes – reproduced via internal fertilisation. This suggests that all gnathostomes were doing it too.

The find shows that vertebrates lost and regained the ability to efficiently deliver sperm internally, many times over. Copulation was such fun, evolution discovered it again and again.

It also shows that the first jawed vertebrates were copulating. But close descendants of Microbrachius have been found with clear evidence showing that they used external fertilisation, Long says. So the evolution of both external and internal fertilisation must have happened repeatedly.

“Among the roughly 50,000 species of extant vertebrates, we have no evidence that internal fertilisation has ever reverted to external fertilisation,” says Daniel Blackburn from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, who was not involved in the study. “Once a lineage has evolved a way for males to introduce sperm into the reproductive tract of the female, they tend to retain that mode of fertilisation.”

Missing, no more

Apparently, not, since Long’s work provides this missing evidence, Blackburn says. “Under this interpretation, internal fertilisation must have been lost prior to the evolution of the two major lineages of living jawed fishes.” From them evolved the cartilaginous fishes – modern day sharks, skates, and rays – and the bony fishes and their descendants – including us.

Around the time the bony fishes and sharks evolved, internal fertilisation went AWOL, says Long. And then nobody was doing it until internal fertilisation re-evolved about 20 to 40 million years later. And when that happened, animals adopted a different way of locking on to each other.

Long says there are genetic clues as to how the ability could be lost and then come back. “The HOXD13 gene can develop limbs and genital organs in mammals and in sharks as well,” he says. “Early fish probably originated the capability of evolving these things and then they were lost. But once that gene was set in the vertebrate body plan, it could come back later.”

Examining fossil specimens of the earliest known jawed fish, M. dicki, Long and colleagues found both male and female genitalia that had gone unnoticed. On the male they found bony structures that spread out on each side of the fish, with a groove that would have delivered the sperm. On the female, there were spiny plates that would have acted like Velcro, holding the male in place.

The real clincher showing that the fish went for internal fertilisation is that their genitals are nearly identical to those of later fish, where females have been found complete with embryos, Long says. “There’s no other interpretation of what they could be,” he says. The new find shows that it was a feature of the very earliest ones.

It even reveals how they did it (see video, above). “Fundamentally they couldn’t have done it in a missionary position,” says Long, pointing out that the genital structures are bony, immobile and are on the sides of the fishes. It also explains why the fish have spiny arms: they were probably used to hold hands, to help lock the genitals in place, as the did it side-by-side. “We’ve wondered for over 100 years what these tiny little jointed arms were used for in these peculiar fishes,” Long says. “The very first act of copulation was done sideways, square-dance style.”

Blackburn, who himself studies reproductive anatomy, says he finds the analysis of how the genitals were used convincing. “It is most surprising to find evidence for a loss of internal fertilisation in a fossil lineage,” he says.

Journal Reference: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature13825

TOK: Imagination: Where does it take us?

‘You can’t depend on your eyes when you imagination is out of focus’ Mark Twain

In many contexts, being ‘subjective’ is something to avoid. In what context is the subjective power of the imagination something to celebrate. Where does imagination take us?  This question was posed to Year 12 TOK students, and their presentations were moving, tearful, awe inspired and very enjoyable. Below are a few examples of what inspires my current Year 12 students. Enjoy.



DNA Candy Models

Today in Higher Level Biology, students were asked to construct DNA models from candy (liquorice, marshmallows, toothpicks). The students needed to be able to identify the nitrogenous bases, hydrogen bonds and we discussed the composition of the ‘backbone’ of the molecule. The entire experience was very positive and an effective review from the previous presentation on the structure of DNA.


Year 12 DNA Candy Models