My past caught up with me the other day. This wasn’t some old bony skeleton creaking and creeping out from the closet. This was a bonafide blast from the past; a welcome visit from a long forgotten friend. Actually, this wasn’t as much of a friend as it was a mentor. His trade was teacher and apparently, tarot cards were the tools of his trade.
Recently I found a note from this teacher. The note dated all the way back to my high-school days, circa 1989. The note was straight-from-the-gut feedback; a response to a final exam essay that I written for his course. I don’t remember writing this essay, but I do vaguely remember getting his reply. When I think of seventeen year old me reading it, I can see me staring at it thinking, “there is something valuable in these words … something I need to understand and apply.” Honestly, I just don’t think I was able to comprehend the message he was delivering at the time.
I saved it the note. I don’t know why, but I did. I saved it time capsule style tucked away in a box in my parent’s basement. I found it late last year and I haven’t been able to shake what it had to say. Nineteen-eighty-nine was a long time ago, but this message still resonates. Today when I read his note I realize that he knew me better than I knew myself. At seventeen I lacked self-awareness – plain and simple. I’m chock-full of it now which is why this note makes absolute sense to the forty-two year old me of today.
This teacher was unconventional in his methods both in how he structured his courses and how he taught them — which is probably why a gravitated to him/them. What was he like as a teacher? Think of Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. When the rules said go this way, he went that way and you felt compelled to follow. I liked “unconventional” when I was younger and I like it today. There is freedom in “unconventional” that comes with making a decision to take a different path or create a new approach. That freedom is not the decision itself, though. That freedom is the responsibility that you take for the outcome of that unconventional decision.
Once you read the note this unconventional/decision/responsibility relationship will make sense. Ultimately, I think the comments he made twenty-five years ago are even more relevant to my life today. The lesson had been sitting dormant in a dark and dank basement waiting to be learned. I’m sharing it because I think the lesson can be applied to anyone that reads this. The lesson is that to understand what you are capable of, you have to first understand yourself. This teacher understood what I was capable of, and by the time I pulled his message out from my past, I knew myself well enough to understand and apply it.
I don’t know if he is still alive today. I tried to stalk him on the internet. I found an address that I think may have been his. I decided to send him a letter to say thanks. You can read that letter below. Before you read that … have a read of the note that he wrote me back in 1989.
Don’t just let this be a one shot affair
Sometimes the best lessons in life don’t sink in until long after they are taught. That is the case we have here, [teacher]. Recently I uncovered an ancient artifact, a document written by a great prognosticator of its time: you. The document in question is a response that you wrote in reply to my personality assessment essay back in 1989.
I don’t want to be so presumptuous that would you remember me straight away. I was part of the class of 1990. I was outspoken. I was a frequent in-class-contributor. I was full of misplaced, youthful energy. I was also a pain in the ass. I took every course you taught. I can remember flashes of each; the moments that mattered most. Unfortunately I can’t remember all of it, but artifacts like these help.
I hope you don’t mind an old student dropping you a line. I felt compelled to do so. I wanted to tell you that you made a lasting impact on one of your students — even if it took twenty-five years for this fool to see what was so obvious to you then.
That is life though? Sometimes now isn’t the right time. Sometimes you need time to go out and encounter life on your own terms. Sometimes you need to experience yourself before you can understand yourself.
For the last eleven years I have been doing just that. I am writing to you now from my flat in London. I have been living in London for the past four years. Prior to that I lived in Sydney, Australia for five years. Prior to that I lived in Florida and prior to that in Boston. My wife and I have been on a bit of a world tour since we married back in 2001.
The cause for each of our moves was to advance my wife’s career. The effect was that I constantly had to disrupt mine. Every time we moved for my wife’s job meant that I had to quit mine and look for a new one wherever we landed. Sometimes that was on local soil and sometimes in a foreign land. Either way it meant that I needed go out and convince some company I was worth taking on as an employee.
It was a challenge to do this repeatedly in countries and cultures that were new to me. I quickly realized that the challenge wasn’t about me getting to know my new environment. The true challenge was about me getting to know myself.
I have spent a lot of time trying to do just that. Trying to understand what it is that really makes me tick; what my purpose in life is; what I have to offer; why the hell I am here; what the hell does it all mean.
Yes, I have been on that existential trip we all take at one point or another. Some people take the full trip. Others travel down that road only as far as their fear will let them and then they turn back. I have chosen to see it until the end; buy the ticket, take the ride.
I will save you from all the gory details of what I have learned (and it has been A LOT) and will jump straight to why I am writing you: your reply to my essay back in 1989.
There are so many truths in your reply that it makes me laugh out loud to (at?) myself when I read it. There are so many points that you were trying to make, and make simple enough for the young me to understand … but, I just couldn’t at that point in time. For instance, you said this:
“One of my goals is to allow absolute individual responsibility, including any and all consequences good and bad just as the real world will do.“
That’s a heavy message — one that I couldn’t grasp back then. I can now understand the wisdom in this. From this point of view, or of someone like Sartre, I can see the value of that existential responsibility that we all have: to own our choices and decisions in life, to make them in good faith, o take responsibility for the outcomes and to find freedom in the act of doing so.
This is something that I strongly believe in. It is central to my core philosophy in life: the only thing we truly own in life are the choices and decisions that we make. In my book, nothing is more important; nothing more real and representative of who we are and how we interact with the (absurd) world.
I came to this realization before I found your note. That being said, I do believe that the lesson you were trying to teach me took hold way back when; it just didn’t surface until I was ready to learn it. I was just a crazy teenage kid, but you still tried to wake me up to the fact I was responsible for all my actions and outcomes and you weren’t going to let me off the hook (no “super-parent”). Thanks for that.
You also called me out for not “biting the bullet and being disciplined.” Oh, how right you were. I spent the majority of my twenties dodging bullets instead of biting them. You saw it. It must have been so obvious to you, or anyone who encountered me at that time. As you say in the note… “absolute individual responsibility.”
The part of your reply that really stands out for me, that rings like a bell in my head at times when it truly needs to resonate is this:
“You have real leadership potential; do take what you got from this class and apply it to other classes, other years; don’t just let this be a one shot affair; use the stuff, make it a part of your everyday personality and life.”
You were right. So damn right. When I re-read that one part — don’t just let this be a one shot affair — I feel compelled to be a better person; to make better choices and decisions; to have an impact on others — a positive lasting impact on others that will inspire them to be better.
With age comes wisdom — truer words have never been spoken. I do wish that at my young age that I would have been able to understand and apply your wisdom — but, I am not one to look backwards. Hindsight is a bitch: it’ll leave you bitter or it will trick you in to thinking that the old answers apply to the new question.
Like I said at the beginning of this letter, sometimes the best lessons in life don’t sink in until long after they are taught. The best lessons get learned in the moment when they happen. It’s whether or not you have the self-awareness to understand the moment in the first place that matters most.
It took me a while, but now understand what you were trying to tell me. There is so much more that I would like to tell you about my experiences and what they have taught me; so much more about where my head is at today; so much more about what it is that I now know to be my purpose in life and how your courses and your wisdom plays a role in this.
I also have many questions for you, but I think it is time to end this letter. Hell, I haven’t communicated with you since I graduated in 1990 and now I just drop this letter in your lap?!
I wish I had my entire journal from your course and all of your replies, but I don’t. I would like to sift through them for more wisdom-nuggets. For whatever reason, I kept this one reply of yours. Maybe I felt that there was something there, something that you were trying to tell me, and I knew that someday I would understand it. In any case I am glad I kept it. It is a reminder of everything I have left to do and that there isn’t a moment to waste.
I do hope that you are well. Thanks again for all that you did. The types of courses you taught weren’t conventional academics, they were about life. Thanks for making the effort to teach to and not teach at.