Finding My Limit

Or, Why I Like Calculus

The speed of light in a vacuum is approximately 300,000,000 meters per second, meaning that photons from the surface of the Sun take roughly eight minutes to reach planet Earth. That’s a long time or a short time depending on one’s understanding of distances between celestial bodies, but it matters that it’s eight minutes and not seven. Nothing can hurry the sunlight; it’s going as fast as it can, and, still, it takes eight minutes.

There’s an epic moment in the movie Without Limits, the 1998 biopic of great American runner Steve Prefontaine. Bill Bowerman, Pre’s coach, shouts at him, “Be thankful for your limits, Pre. They’re about as limitless as they get in this life.” Pursuit of greatness can quickly turn into obsession: Pre once held the American record at every distance from 2,000 to 10,000m on the outdoor track, and still he wanted more. There’s something so tantalizing about a record. It taunts a man to go just a little bit faster, to push just a little bit harder.

In 1954, Roger Bannister recorded the first sub-four-minute mile. As of this writing, the current men’s record is 3:43.13 by retired Moroccan runner Hicham El Guerrouj. Most experts would agree that a sub-three-minute mile is beyond human capability, but what about 3:42? Or 3:41? Following Bannister’s achievement, the world record dropped every few years, but El Guerrouj’s mark has stood since 1999. Perhaps sociocultural factors have lessened the global interest in distance running, perhaps elite athletes no longer carry that singular focus, or perhaps the world has already seen the fastest a human being will ever run 5,280 feet. Another decade will provide a hint; another century may tell for sure. It makes for an exhilarating thought experiment: Is mankind still reaching its greatest potential, or has the moment already passed?

Considering this question, it makes sense why I liked calculus in school. The mathematical study of limits, the convergence of graphs and patterns toward a single asymptote they will never cross—I saw my life in numbers. One of my middle school teachers told the class, “Boys, when your wife asks what’s the happiest day of your life, the correct answer is the day of your wedding. Maybe until your first child is born, then you can say that.” Not a lot to hope for once the kids are out of the house, is there? Maybe joy approaches a limit until a man’s wedding day but has a line it never crosses. Maybe my athletic prowess peaked in college, or maybe I’ll work out more in my fifties. Maybe my health has already reached its upper limit; hopefully my finances are a long way off.

This kind of talk depresses most readers, and it probably should. There’s a natural limitation to human effort: We are born invincible and gradually learn the truth. The child’s hand on the stove, the teen’s first broken heart, bad news at the doctor’s, a pink slip at the job. Paul writes of the thorn in his flesh, the one to which the Lord said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). So there is grace in limitation; God’s power goes beyond the asymptote.

I try to imagine a shape with no boundaries, and suddenly I’m thankful for my limits. I, too, have definition; I too am named. Light takes eight minutes to arrive here from the sun, and it’s well worth the journey. True power comes when I approach my limits.

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An Open Letter to My Students

From Your English Teacher

Dear students,

Some distressing news has come to my attention, and I must address it immediately. Apparently a rumor is now circulating our school community that I am, in fact, a “cool” teacher. I assure you—and those of you who’ve known my bad jokes and insistence that we always finish the lesson will heartily agree—that nothing could be further from the truth. Allow me to set the record straight: I may be friendly, but I am not your friend.

You see, friends will invite you to parties, show sympathy when you’re sick, and accept your shy moments when you don’t want to share. They will forgive your dumb decisions and random class outbursts; they will supply you with answers on the homework you forgot about and shrug it off when you turn it in late. A good friend will help you, rescue you, or perhaps even lie for you to get you out of trouble.

I will not.

No, I will ignore your headaches and stomachaches and call on you anyway. Keep your hands down and your heads on your desks—I will call on you anyway. Save your “I don’t know” unless you want to add yet. I will demand your respect for me and for others; I will require your effort on every assignment. Oh, and when you misbehave and I speak to your parents, I will throw you under the bus every time. Count on it.

Such harshness, however, is not without reason. I’m a little ahead of you in life, and that gives me some perspective. I need more from you than you currently give, and, trust me, you need it too. You might think you’ll be okay as long as you do your best—maybe someone has even told you that—but you won’t be. The problem with do your best, dear students, is that you have no idea what it means.

Right now, you think your best is just showing up on time and following directions. As long as you’re ahead of some peers, there’s nothing to worry about. You think your best is a five-paragraph essay, double spaced with a flashy title and word choices like mirthful and astute. You say your best is a 5/5 on participation, and you’re pleased with an A on your vocab quiz. Your best is meeting the standards; your best is fitting the mold.

It’s not.

Your best, my students, means taking a risk; your best goes beyond the horizon. My job is to push you when you’d rather be pulled. My job is to stoke the fire of your ideas that don’t quite fit on the page, to give you voice beyond the expected response, to help you read with questions and speak with answers, to develop in you a hunger for knowledge that a lifetime of learning could never satisfy. When someday you graduate from one challenge and move on to the next, when you create with your gifts and serve with your talents, when you make your marks on the world and see what still can be and not just what is, that is your best. Then I will have done my job.

I set the bar higher than you’d set if for yourselves because I know one day you’ll jump without it, and I want you to soar. So yes, you must use complete sentences, and no, we are not watching a movie today. I am the uncool teacher because you are more valuable than you know and more capable than you believe.

So ignore the rumors because yes, you do have homework.


-Mr. Leonard

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