Dear 3rd Form W,
Today I presided over your end-of-term English and Music exams, an experience which was probably as much work for me as it was for you. As you toiled over reading comprehension and remembering the Greek origin of the word “music,” I was busy discouraging some of you from cheating. (Some of you were deliberately trying!) The experience probably felt eternal to both you and me. However, while looming over you I stumbled across an important realization and an insightful piece of learning that I otherwise might not have had. Furthermore, I began to see you in a way that you probably cannot see yourselves. I saw glimpses of your capacity, that of which you are capable. I saw icebergs of potential whose very tops, which appear obvious on the surface, pale in comparison to the gargantuan collection underneath the water.
Being able to see someone in this way comes with time, experience, and, God willing, a bit of maturity. It rings familiar to me because it is exactly what my teachers – and parents – said to me when I sat where you sit now. Nd just like you, I did not let it permeate me. As you will doubtless discover, one of life’s greatest ironies is an inability to hear the counsel, advice, and encouragement we need when we need it.
Like you, I did what was assigned to me in school, did well enough to get by, and hardly anything more. Sometimes I did even less. And as I slowly paced in between the desks of the classroom today, I recalled times where, in my formative years, I did not live up to the potential others saw in me. I remembered my dad’s requirement of reading as much as I watched television. I often abandoned both to go play basketball or ride my bike. Perhaps if I picked up a book more often, I would be a better reader today. I also remembered my mom’s not-so-subtle urgings to study for a regional spelling bee. Perhaps I might not have been eliminated in the third round if I had picked up my study guide more often than I did a video game controller. I still feel the sting of disappointment more than twenty years later.
But I am not telling you anything you have not heard already, am I? You can accomplish anything you want to. You know this. You know it in your marrow. But you know equally well no one will do it for you, and I think that scares you. You are scared to try and fail. You are scared of how you will look if that happens. Moreover, you are scared to succeed, because if you succeed while others do not, you risk being ostracized, being different, and not fitting in. You risk ridicule. And that sucks.
You are at that age when the trappings of appearance, popularity, and belonging begin sinking their claws into you. The cost of letting them do so can be mediocrity; playing beneath your intelligence so people will accept you – or at least pretend to. I see the students in grades ahead of you frequently trade potential for acceptance, and I recognize having done the same, sometimes even as an adult. Many of you are standing at the beginning of those diverging paths, trying to understand the signpost and determining which to choose. One path is easier than the other. The more difficult path is bound by hard work and sacrifice, but its destination is character. It is a path less chosen for obvious reasons.
Why do I tell you this if you inherently know it? Because I am writing this for myself as much as I am for you. For a long time, I thought that the window within which I could expand myself, live up to and possibly exceed my potential had passed. I was lulled to sleep by the same aforementioned mediocrity. But I also realized that no matter how old we are, there is always time to do something substantive with the days ahead of us.
Some of you look at me and say, “Sir, ya old.” Perhaps. But then I remember Jake, a man I met last summer in Chicago. We met at a dog park as we watched our pets run around. Jake is in his 70s and has many careers. He recently finished a photography book about Chicago firefighters; a project born out of an instinct to photograph a burning mattress. In an email he recently wrote, “I remember when an old [guy] like me said I was a bright and talented young man, and of course, I didn’t believe him. Twenty years later I did. Don’t wait that long.”
Jake is at least 30 to 40 years my senior and given his time, experience and maturity, he saw in me a capacity I can’t fathom. And there is a parallel between that and the potential I see in you, and I believe his advice is as applicable to you as it is me. Armed with that, we all can move forward confident that there is nothing we cannot accomplish.
So thank you, 3rd Form W for providing me a teaching moment. Without you I might never have found this tremendous gift or been reminded of a most important lesson I need to remember more often.