Full Circle

I am a high school English teacher. This job isn’t easy. You are working to impart critical, empowering, lifelong literacy skills to young people who are struggling with a multitude of challenges over which you as a teacher have no control. Their skill levels as readers and writers can range from elementary school capabilities to those exceeding what you might expect from a third-year college student—and these kids are often in the same room together. Motivation to learn is something you rarely see; if you manage to inculcate a sense of self-discipline, a “do it even if you don’t want to” mentality in most of your students, then that is a victory.

One of the many challenges I have worked to overcome during the course of my 25 year career is fixating on the setbacks, or thinking only of the students I couldn’t seem to reach, while not placing proper value on the impacts my efforts may have had on many students—or properly recognizing the impacts those students have had on me.  I keep a scrapbook of every letter, note, message, graduation announcement, photograph, or update on the life of a student given to me. When I have a particularly challenging day, I go through that scrapbook to remind myself of the students whose lives I impacted over the course of the last 25 years, and that is enough to charge me up for another day and rededicate myself to the work of helping to craft minds and futures in what small ways I can.

A while back, I had an experience that brought a student connection full circle and reminded me once again why I do what I do. First, a little background. In the fall of 2002, I had a student in my sophomore level World Literature class who changed the course of my life in a simple and unexpected (for both of us) way.  We’ll call him “Jack.” One day, Jack came up to me before class and handed me a slender volume that I instantly recognized as a Penguin Classic edition from the distinctive font and colors on the cover. “Have you read this?”  he asked. “I think you’d like it.” He then walked away before I could respond. It was a copy of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. I had at the time never heard of Marcus Aurelius and knew nothing of Stoic philosophy. That was all about to change. That evening, I sat down with a cup of tea and cracked the cover of The Meditations for the first time, just curious enough to think, “Let’s see what this is all about.” I was in no way expecting what came next—a wholesale spiritual conversion.

Over the course of the next several years, inspired by Jack’s unsolicited recommendation, I immersed myself in every Stoic text and analysis of Stoic philosophy I could get my hands on. The Meditations, a read that you can complete quickly but that never loses its immediate applications to your life, was followed by The Discourses of Epictetus, the letters of Seneca, Pierre Hadot’s The Inner Citadel (an analytical breakdown of the Meditations), William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, and a number of other resources that would slowly help me to wrap my mind around a life philosophy that rang true to me and has guided me through some challenging periods over the years.

I cannot claim to have become some kind of Stoic sage as a result of these studies; I remain challenged by a personality that can have the tendency to fixate on errors made in the past and that conjures imaginary stresses out of the ether. That’s what’s great about philosophy, though. Every day is a new chance to begin again. Marcus Aurelius made a habit of reflecting back over his day and asking himself how his impressions and reactions could have been better and more balanced. Even near the end of his own life, he would curse himself for his failures, letting the weaknesses of his body overcome the reason that he trusted to guide him. He knew he was running out of time to perfect things. If the philosopher king himself struggled putting his philosophy into daily, direct practice, then what hope do us poor amateurs have?  We do as he did—the best we can. I owe Jack for setting me off on my imperfect but ongoing Stoic path; I only hope I impacted the course of his life in some small way that stuck. I’ll never really know (that’s not a thing you ask someone), but he deserves at least that in exchange for how he altered the course of my own.

As it turns out, I recently had the opportunity to see where Jack’s path had led him in the years following his 2005 graduation from high school. His mother, a wizened, streetwise soul who has always been deeply involved by volunteering in our school’s artistic and academic programs, stuck her head in my classroom a couple of weeks ago and said that Jack was back in town. She also invited me to a “house concert,” in which Jack would play the cello (he went on to become a professional musician and music instructor) and accompany his fiancée, a fellow musician and instructor who would sing the soprano parts of a handful of specifically chosen classical pieces. I loved classical music, and looked forward to seeing how a former student of mine had grown and continued to learn over the years.

The concert was a small and intimate affair, with an audience of around 15 people and two dogs clustered into Jack’s parents’ living room. It was clear from the outset that Jack had really found the calling of his soul. Though I have little skill when it comes to performing music and have very picky and eclectic tastes when it comes to its appreciation, I know when a particular instrument or song has moved me. It isn’t often. Well, as he had moved me in his reading recommendation all those years ago, he managed to do it again as his fingers graced the cello.  He summoned soaring, inspirational sounds from the instrument that left me speechless and brought raw emotions to the surface. Jack’s music, coupled with his fiancee’s stunning and powerful voice, made for a truly enjoyable and once again transformative experience.

As a kind of personal indulgence, Jack shifted the tone of the performance at around the mid-way point to share one of his passions with us—postrock music.  I could not have told you what a genre with that name would have sounded like before that night. I can now. He connected his cello to a personalized control station with pedals for his feet and a number of other dials and switches which he manipulated for a few minutes before launching into a performance of a piece he had written himself. One of my first reactions to it was “That sound! It’s just like ‘Explosions in the Sky’ (a postrock band I had never known was a postrock band that performed the music for the Friday Night Lights movie soundtrack).  One song from that soundtrack, called “Sonho Dourado,” has always struck an emotional chord in me.  Jack’s music could have been on the same soundtrack.

After the concert as we stood around in the kitchen nibbling on appetizers and gushing over the amazing performance to which we had been privy, I shook Jack’s hand and thanked him once again for inspiring me and opening up a whole new avenue of spiritual motivation to explore.  When I shared with him how much like ‘Explosions in the Sky’ his music sounded, he responded with “Yeah! That’s postrock.”  I had a name for it now—one of the few musical genres that could genuinely move me (some of it, at any rate; as with all musical genres, there are specific songs that “strike a chord”, and others that don’t reach that spiritual level).  Though my explorations of the genre since that night have not yielded universal acclaim from me, I have discovered a number of songs and albums that hit just the right notes, so to speak.  When current students ask me “What kind of music do you listen to?” (which they do on a surprisingly regular basis), I can say “Postrock” with confidence, along with ambient/space music and a few others. I don’t know what kind of conversations among their peers that answer must generate.

The last thing I said to Jack and his fiancée when that evening came to its end was “Keep doing what you are doing. You two are a gift to the world.” I meant it, too. To know that a student whose life I had touched and who had definitely touched mine went on to harness his passion and turn it into a career, while at the same time bringing beauty and joy to so many others, brought me a sense of deep peace and satisfaction. The strongest takeaway from my experiences working with Jack would be to always be open to what others can teach you, as you never know when someone may do or say something that can change the course of your life and impact you on a spiritual level.  I have seen so many young souls come through my classroom since 1992; some of them, like Jack, I remember vividly due to the impacts they had on me and the lessons they taught me.  In many cases, the lessons I learned were not things that the students themselves intended to teach; they simply reacted to something I tried as I worked to experiment and improve my craft, and I was then the beneficiary of their explicit and implicit feedback.

We never stop learning, no matter what it is we do. One problem I think modern society is wrestling with is a narcissistic belief that all that needs to be learned is learned very young, and others are to blame should some aspect of that false self-assuredness be challenged or proven wrong at some point.  We must all be willing to adjust our beliefs when they are confronted by new facts or experiences that we had not previously encountered, and this can happen at any time. That doesn’t mean to blindly jettison what you hold to be true just because someone else holds a different perspective, but just to have the willingness to say, “Gee, he/she might have a point there.” How might my life have been different had I said to Jack when he first handed me The Meditations, “No interest, Jack. What could someone who lived two thousand years ago possibly have to say that might benefit me? I’ve already figured things out.” I shudder to contemplate it.

We have access to more information today than those of any previous age, yet our challenge lies in sifting through it to separate the kernels of wisdom from the superficial chaff.  This must begin with openness; don’t close your mind to all that those you encounter may intentionally or unintentionally offer you. Look for the wisdom in their words and actions.  You never know from what source or direction that unexpected and life-altering lesson or source of new inspiration for your spirit may come.

Thanks, Jack, and thanks to all of the students who were, and still are, my teachers.


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