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March 22, 2014 / A Mindful Traveler

What Is Success?

Kim Yuna - Olympic figure-skating gold medalist and Korea's most beloved citizen.

Kim Yuna – Olympic figure-skating gold medalist and Korea’s most beloved citizen.

“You’re not trying to be a great teacher.  You’re trying to be a great learner.”  So said Sheridan Blau, one of my graduate school mentors, the former President of the National Council of Teachers of English, and the author of the best book on teaching English literature I know of.  Although I heard this advice from a professor with half a century of teaching experience, I actually learned it this Wednesday from a group of students the oldest of whose parents likely had not been born when Professor Blau began teaching.

This week my 11th grade Honors English classes began their study of Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller’s masterpiece from 1949.   To prepare them for one of the play’s underlying questions, I asked them to define success and their answers surprised me.    They began as a series of words and phrases:  stability, improvement, finding a purpose, following your hearts,  and reaching small goals.  One student offered “economic profits” but the discussion immediately returned to more intangible concepts: inspiring others, independence, and self reliance.  They immediately related the last of these concepts to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden  which they had studied the previous year.

Another student brought up money, by observing that it provides choices.  Others then began to raise more conventional social and material definitions of success, such as having authority over others, and as one student put it, “winning.”  Another added that success involved achieving so that one “chooses rather than being chosen.”  The group gradually developed a consensus, centering around the concepts of being able to help others, influence younger people, and ultimately having your name represent something.  I asked whether this latter concept involved having a great monument erected in your name or becoming an eponym, but the students were adamant that it meant something more nuanced: inspiring others.  They offered the example of Kim Yuna, the Olympic figure-skating gold medalist who is Korea’s most beloved citizen, not because of her excellence in her chosen profession, physical beauty, or wealth, but because of the thousands of young children whom she has inspired to follow in her skate-marks.

In doing so they saw success not as something personal, but rather shared.  The definition they ended up being most comfortable with, “having your name represent something,” at first glance seems selfish.  Yet upon reflection it’s the opposite; it’s inspiring other people to be their best selves to emulate you.  As I think back to the people who have inspired me personally, I feel the most closeness not to those whose lives are like monuments, but to those who did things I admired that I have then attempted to emulate.

My high school chemistry teacher was the first openly gay person I ever know.  He ran his class with one simple rule, respect.  This didn’t prevent his wisecracking at students’ expense or his mantra when they were unruly seeming like a joke.  (My family still uses it: “imagine you’re at the beach, sand between your toes, there you go.”) In retrospect it may have been my first experience with mindfulness.  Joking aside, he always had time for me or whoever needed it.  He taught me about tolerance not only through his being but also through his actions.  I remember being proud to serve as a witness at his wedding.  I was happy he’d found someone who shared his kindness, sense of humor, and height.  (I’m 6’2″ but he still towered over me.)

Midway through my 10th grade year I had back surgery and missed nearly a third of the year’s classes.  Other teachers told me, after assurances otherwise, that’s I’d need to make up every assignment as given.  His approach was different; he cared only that I learn the material.  He told me I could show my knowledge in my own way at my own pace.  Understanding I was too weak to sit a 45 minute test, he would tutor me on the material and then give me oral quizzes about what I had learned.  I was extraordinarily happy at the end of the year, not because of my long-forgotten grade, but that I’d qualified to taking his AP Chemistry class the following year.

I wasn’t particularly good at AP Chemistry, but I loved both the material and his teaching.  (The latter was objectively quite successful since every student in the class passed the AP Exam.)  He often belied his Ph.D. and professional experience by explaining concepts utilizing the music of the 1980s.  Unfortunately I’ve forgotten this material in the intervening years, most distressingly the 1980s music references, but not his message of tolerance.  He showed me that by treating everyone with respect and approaching them at their own level, you inspire them to be their best and seek the same in others.  I hope that by trying to emulate his message, I can inspire others in the way he inspired me and thus live up to the definition of success I’ve learned from my students.

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