I was never a person who enjoyed learning in any traditional way. I hated being in school growing up. I hated being stuck in a classroom. I did well when motivated, but otherwise if the subject and/or teacher did not inspire, I found it very difficult to concentrate on my schoolwork.
It therefore makes complete sense that when I became a teacher it was in an alternative educational setting. For example, to teach children about nature, I taught them in the exact environment where we could find the subject. Want to learn about Pacific salmon an old growth forest? Join Ranger M at North Cascades national Park.
I can’t myself very lucky that I had many inspiring teachers sprinkled among the uninspiring over the course of my elementary, middle, and high school years. Who is this teacher is who inspired me to want to be a teacher myself, even if it took me a while to realize that you could be an educator and not be stuck in a classroom, growing old through yearbook photos.
Mr. S. was one such teacher. I guarantee that if you ask anyone from my high school, they will remember Mr. Sullivan with the same acuity and nostalgia as I. I will say that if you ask women, you will witness a dreamy, distant look appear in their eyes.
Mr. S. was tall. He wore glasses and had silver hair. He was our Robin Williams, our “Oh Captain, my Captain.” Mr. S. gave everyone an A at the start of the term. It was up to each student to then hold onto that A. Students repeatedly kept their high grades and scored 4s and 5s on the AP exams at the end of the year.
Mr. S had a sense of humor. He shared jokes and made learning an enjoyable experience, even something students looked forward to. I have always been able to motivate myself to study and work with obsessive diligence on subjects I care about, and Mr. S. accomplished this in spades for my peers and me.
The subject was psychology. It remains the only official psychology course I had taken. I would argue that the 10+ years of therapy I have experienced might grant me at least a minor in psychology, but I am not in the mood for arguing (right now).
I can still remember the video we watched about Rusty the narcoleptic Beagle to learn about narcolepsy and descriptions of cognitive dissonance (one of my favorite concepts) and the threshold “point of no return” theory, which Mr. S. described as that moment when you have pressed down the handle on the toilet and there is no turning back. That water will be rushing forth no matter what you might try to do to stop it (not that I can think of a reason you might want to stop the flushing of a toilet…unless perhaps, you dropped something important in the bowl?).
Mr. S taught psychology from a textbook that also employed humor as an educational method. There were many cartoons—this is a distant relative of a meme for any of you youngsters who might be reading along. I remember wishing that I could keep the textbook as a keepsake and to reread so as not to remember everything I had learned. In hindsight, it is interesting that I did not wind up pursuing a degree in psychology. This is likely explained by the presence of another teacher who was highly influential at my high school was the AP U.S. history teacher, but that is a reflection for another day.
I think most students experienced their own individual love affair with Mr. S. I even had a friend who tried to set him up with her mom at one point. I think about Mr. S. from time to time, though it isn’t out of a nostalgia for high school or the memory of an ancient crush.
No. What I remember most vividly about this person was the aura of sadness that surrounded him. It was ever present. I had this sense that Mr. S. was lonely and always on the verge of a mid-life crisis.
It was not just a sixth sense that gave me this impression. It was Mr. S. himself. He spoke about mid-life crises with such poignant understanding that it could only have derived from a personal knowing. I can recall him describing being young with the sense that you have all of this time to do anything your heart could imagine and desire, following by the realization upon reaching the middle of one’s life and realizing that it had not turned out the way you had hoped and to then be filled with sadness and regret.
Of course, as an idealistic youth at the time, I could not understand this perspective in any kind of embodied way. I had my whole life ahead of me. I had the idea that I was going to do everything.
Having reached what is hopefully not my middle age but is certainly a far cry from 17, I remember these metaphors and musings. I once thought I would become a performing classical pianist. Then, I thought I would learn to speak multiple foreign languages. I thought I would live and work in Africa. I thought I might learn to play multiple instruments and become a performing musician. The list goes on.
I have made choices on a path to a balanced, if not blissful, existence. I had the desire to travel to Africa and learn foreign languages, and I did not have a desire to practice piano for 12 hours every day in order to enter the stringent world of classical music, where my delicate sensibilities would likely be crushed from critique and competition.
I realized I did not want to live and work in Africa after studying in Mali for a semester and bearing witness to the repercussions of the influence from so many generations of people and western countries doing the same.
I decided to commit to learning one language really well. Instead of attempting to learn Italian, Germany, and others and forming a tenuous grasp of understanding, I could dedicate time, travel, and study to learning and maintaining my ability to speak French. I took a few courses in college; went to a summer immersion program thanks to my parents’ generosity and encouragement; studied abroad in French-speaking west Africa; taught English in elementary schools in France; spoke French with tourists from Canada and France during my years as a park ranger; and planned visits to friends in France as often as possible.
Given my lifelong commitment to making the world a better place, my budget has limited me to one language as well. I used to joke in my youth that I would have no money but at least I would be doing something important and meaningful. I can tell you that the joke part is more funny tragic than funny ha ha after having fulfilled this prophecy over the past couple of decades. Working as a volunteer intern to an underpaid seasonal park ranger offered invaluable learning opportunities and the ability to live in incredibly beautiful, albeit remote, places; however, I did not earn the kind of financial resources necessary for traveling the world in pursuit of multi-lingual aspirations.
I have managed to fall in love with many different instruments and to purchase a fair number of those instruments. I have not managed to be dedicated enough to practicing these instruments or finding communities of musicians to learn from in order to become as adept at playing them as I once dreamed.
I remember being told by one of the parent of one of my students who participated in one of the environmental education programs I led in my mid-20s that I had “missed my calling” after I performed a song on guitar and sang about Pacific Salmon and old growth forests for the kids. I have often felt this pang of regret at not pursuing music more fully. My husband reminds me that I have been busy trying to create wellbeing and balance in my life, which often feels like a full-time job.
There are so many books to read. There is music to listen to; places around the world to discover; and too few hours in each day.
Life is long, my husband reminds me. While I know and hope for this to be true, I can also feel the clock ticking.
My therapist recently suggested that I try to focus on positive affirmations in order to shift the language of regret or the feeling of not being good enough. In this vein, here are some accomplishments that make me proud of how I have spent my time thus far on this perpetual motion, blue planet ride.
I returned to music after a several year hiatus and helped to develop a unique method of songwriting.
I have learned to play the ukulele and guitar, and I am actually practicing my bodhran drum. Perhaps, I will answer that calling yet.
I earned a PhD.
I can speak French fairly fluently.
I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro (this, along with learning French, was one of my life goals ever since my dad told me about his experience climbing the mountain as a young adult).
I have become a writer. I first created this blog just over nine years ago and have been writing ever since.
I left my first husband in pursuit of self-sustainability.
I left several government jobs for the same reason.
I created my own career path so I do not have to work for someone else.
In only a few years’ time, I have learned to practice and teach yoga.
I have been meditating almost every day since the spring 2016.
I have gained the trust and kinship of many wonderful, wild beings (this includes those of the human persuasion).
I honor individual beings by inviting them to share their stories and helping to guide them in writing songs from their words.
I have stopped trying to be someone I am not.
I am learning to say no.
I am learning how to communicate from a place of empathy, empathy for my Self and for others.
I have accepted that I will never have straight hair (I still wish I had blue eyes, but no one is perfect).
I am resilient, courageous, quick-witted, and intelligent.
As my husband also reminds me, you can’t do everything. I still think I could have done more, and I know that there is time yet to continue to accomplish my goals and realize my dreams. I also know that I am just as worthy of love either way, I just need more practice in fully embracing this truth in my mind and body.
I hope that wherever he finds himself in the world, Mr. S. is happy. Certainly, he left an impact on many people, who carry him with them as they make their own way in the world. In the end, this matters more than having all of the money in the world. There’s a reason this is a cliché. It is true.