Two related stories:
The first: On a beach in Costa Rica a week or so ago, I struck up a conversation with another vacationer, a guy in his early 40’s who was walking with his daughters, who looked to be about the same age as my granddaughters. Just beach talk, until–after his daughters went into the water–he asked me what I did for a living. When I told him I reported about education, he had a curious response: Is that what you’ve always wanted to do, he wanted to know? Yes, I answered, and because I was once a teacher, education was a natural choice of a beat to cover. You’re lucky, he said, and then proceeded to tell me about his work as some sort of mortgage banker. His firm invested in homes where the mortgages were ‘underwater’ and tried to restructure with the current owners. When that did not work (which was most of the time), his company paid the owners $20,000 or so to walk away from the debt and their home. He said it was a $6 billion business, and that his company owned ‘more homes than you can imagine.’
He went on. This isn’t what I want to be doing, he said. If I could, I would be remodeling old homes and reselling them, one at a time, with a good buddy of mine. That’s been my dream job forever, he said, but I have to make money. He gestured toward his daughters. School, later college, all that stuff, he sighed.
I’m 40, he said, so it’s probably too late for me to change. Because it wasn’t my place to contradict him or encourage him to follow his passion, I said nothing. Basically, I chalked it up to one of those conversations between strangers, where they feel free to say stuff they don’t or can’t talk about with friends and family.
The second story is about Vivian Connell, who taught high school English, ESL, and Japanese, for two decades. She is about the same age as the man on the beach, and, like him, she was dissatisfied at work. And so a few years ago she followed her intuition/heart/gut and made a huge change. By all reports an effective teacher, she came to believe that her chosen profession was being denigrated by powerful forces bent on destroying public schools. And so, determined to put her energy into fighting the negativity, she went to UNC Law, where she graduated with honors and was admitted to the bar. She declined a clerkship opportunity in order to spend 2013-14 advocating for public education.
I met Vivian this February in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she was one of six teachers on a panel I moderated. I met with my panel before our session and explained how we would proceed: no opening remarks, all Q&A, and no off-topic speeches. Vivian immediately piped up. I tend to get carried away, she said, because I feel passionately about what North Carolina and the Obama Administration are doing to public education. If that happens, I said, I will interrupt. Will you do it nicely, she asked with a smile?
Well, as she warned me, she did get carried away a couple of times. As promised, I cut her off (nicely, I think). But when you listen to what she does say, you will understand her strength of character, passion and commitment. If I didn’t say it then, I certainly thought to myself how lucky public education was that Vivian took the leap. Yes, a school lost a terrific teacher, and that’s sad, but the public interest is better served by Vivian’s being an education lawyer.
That wonderful and profoundly moving panel was in February. A month later, Vivian went to her doctor to find out why one leg was giving her trouble. She wrote about it on her blog:
On March 12th, 2014, I learned that I have ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and that over the next 2-10 years – most likely 3-5 years – my motor neurons will gradually stop working and I will lose the use of my limbs, then become unable to breathe and swallow, and then cease to be.
I learned this horrible news the afternoon of my morning conversation on the beach. Vivian writes about this tragedy with dispassionate honesty on her blog, and I insist–if a writer can do that–that you go to her blog now. Please come back later and finish reading this piece.
I wish I could talk again to that man on the beach. If I could, I would tell him about Vivian, and I would ask him to watch Steve Jobs’ graduation speech at Stanford in 2005, perhaps the most significant graduation speech ever delivered. He had received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer 11 years earlier, in 1994, an event that changed his life in every way possible, and he spoke movingly about death and life.
Here are parts of Mr. Jobs’ remarkable speech : “You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”
And: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
Finally: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
Vivian Connell doesn’t ask for pity or sympathy, just that we do the right thing. It’s unlikely that I will see that man on the beach again, but I hope that he decides to follow his heart and intuition, as Steve Jobs did, and as Vivian did….and as I hope you are doing, and are encouraging your children and your students to do.