The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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Idealism, Society, and Ranting

I am a Dominican, hyphen, American. As a fiction writer, I find that the most exciting things happen in the realm of that hyphen — the place where two worlds collide or blend together.

Julia Alvarez

It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful, but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do.

Henry David Thoreau (via Annalyn)

quote from “The Sparrow”

Aside  Comment

I’m presently reading Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, and came across this passage that I really liked:

He was always working or laughing or studying, and his intensity and humor made him seem ageless. She knew something of his life, having worked with him, and recognized him as one of her own kind: an eternal beginner, starting over and over in a new place in new circumstances, with new languages, new people, a new commission. They had this in common: the continual rushed confrontation with change, the feeling of being hothoused, forced to bloom early, the exhausting exhilaration of doing the unreasonable not just adequately but well and with grace.

It felt apropos.

Resignation Letter to Colleagues

From: Ratnayake, Nalin A. (DFRC-RA)
Date: Thu, 26 Jan 2012 15:03:59 -0600
Subject: saddle up

Dear Colleagues,

It will be awhile yet before this takes effect, but I wanted you to hear about this on my own terms, not through vague rumors. Today I gave notice that I will be resigning from my present position as an aerospace research engineer at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center by the end of May 2012.

NASA has been very kind to me. In my five and a half years here, Dryden has afforded me the opportunity to accrue unique engineering knowledge, a masters degree, and a life-changing leadership development experience. I also feel honored to have had the privilege of working with some of the most creative and intelligent people I have ever met. The best part about Dryden is definitely its people, and I will miss you.

Notwithstanding my gratitude for these opportunities, I have been unable to ignore a stronger calling within me, one which has been simmering for years and only recently boiled over into action. I will be leaving Dryden for the intellectual trenches – to the front lines of a social inequity that has been a thorn in my brain for a long time.

I have been accepted to, and have accepted an offer from, the Boston Teacher Residency, on a track for teaching high school physics. After a one-year immersive Masters in Education program, including a rigorous mentoring process focused on holistic urban community development and modeled on a medical residency, graduates are placed into urban schools in struggling communities with the greatest need for their skills. I have been quite humbled by the qualifications, experience, and character of my fellow inductees to BTR’s 10th Cohort.

My motivations are largely personal. I recognize that I will be taking a significant pay cut and leaving a relatively secure federal research position for a profession whose respect and security are paradoxically coming increasingly under fire, even as we recognize more and more its value to society. However, I will not pass up the chance to join this movement.

The primary motivation for everything I have seriously pursued in my life has always been social relevance. My interest in engineering was only partially about technical fascination; it was more broadly about engineering being a crossroads of people and ideas for the benefit of society. I dreamed of working for NASA as a kid because I suppose I saw it as the very bleeding edge of what was possible in peaceful research and exploration; the place where we take on the hardest things our species can imagine, and through succeeding (or even trying), we unlock the benefits for our fellow human beings.

But from a broader perspective, one need only pay marginal attention to the state of our nation to see a whole host of fronts in sore need of creative, passionate, and motivated people undaunted by the odds or the magnitude of the objective. For example, education. The students that are the majority in our urban schools are 3.5 times more likely to grow up in poverty, and subject to its debilitating effects on learning and achievement in the aggregate. In some urban districts, graduation rates are as low as 8%. The situation is even more dire in math and science, fields in which we as a nation have been particularly negligent in preparing the future of our economic and national security, health and welfare, and innovative prowess. The need for qualified science and math teachers over the next ten years is estimated to top 500,000, as roughly two million teachers retire while the student population continues to grow. Hardest hit will be the poor districts that subsist on a never-ending series of long-term, under-qualified substitutes… because there is no one else, and frankly hasn’t been for a long time. The nation that could put a man on another celestial body for the sake of a political principle can’t do better than that by our own classrooms?

To be perfectly honest, I stared at the acceptance form for days before I decided to just turn off my brain, close my eyes, and click yes. In my heart I already knew, but I thought I had to also convince my brain… but there is no way that would have ever happened, because I admit that there is no logical reason to do this. Service to an ideal often inherently entails a modicum of irrational risk; it will never “make sense” to do it in a material context. But had I turned this down, at this point in my life when I have the clear opportunity, am free of debt, and am as of yet unrestricted by any dependents… I think I would have regretted it for a long time. So, as my awareness of these injustices has grown, my individual success has taken on new context: I have decided that it is time to pay it forward, in return for all that this country has enabled me and my family to achieve.

The impending massive turnover in the leadership of private and public institutions over the next decade will soon give our generation the opportunity to make significant positive change in the world.

I hope that in the next chapters of my life I can do justice to the level of gratitude I feel to the experiences, friends, and colleagues I have been fortunate to encounter in this one. Thank you for helping to make me who I am, and for preparing me for what lies ahead. In return, I pledge to work very hard to improve the scientific literacy and curiosity of the electorate supporting your work, set an example for raising the bar on who we as a society want in our most important profession (as many in it already do daily), and to hopefully send you many intelligent, curious, and smartass interns.

I will be around for a few months yet, so you have plenty of time to attempt to inform me that I’m crazy. But this is already locked in. Soon it will be time to saddle up and see if my principles can survive the trenches of reality… time to try and build a better world.


To Bear the Burden of a Long Twilight Struggle

After all the inspiration of BTR Selection Day, the very next day I visited the JFK Presidential Library and Museum. Many points of the visit were highly inspirational, and served to highlight my feelings from the previous day. However, two moments in particular stood out.

The second is harder to convey, as it involved watching Jacqueline Kennedy in a black veil watch her dead husband’s casket pass draped in a flag while bagpipes played.

The first was simply to watch JFK’s Inaugural Address in full, on a large screen. While many of the specific quotes from this speech were familiar, I had never before seen the speech in its entirety. I cried not only because of the power of his words, but for the sad fact that much of the evil and decay in the world that he decried is still here today, 50 years later, and in some cases even worse. Is this the best we can do? Where are the gunslingers like this man today? Is our idealism dead?

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans–born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage–and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

United there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided there is little we can do–for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.

Now the trumpet summons us again–not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need–not as a call to battle, though embattled we are– but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation”–a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.

The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it–and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country.