20110126_the_clearing_letters.jpgStrangely enough, the new year began with a host of letters from old students.
There is a pattern to the letters I have received over the years of my teaching career. When the new graduates email me, it is usually with a tone of elation—the first job, the first paycheck, or the first love. There is a joy in freedom only the young can experience, when finally all the games they used to play to pretend they were grownups are now real-life experiences. My advice is always the same: spend your first paycheck treating your family to something nice. Be kind to each other when in love. Be a good worker, no matter what job you take. These are baby steps, and the way quite clear. Sometimes, tragedy strikes: the job isn’t what was first imagined; the paycheck is pathetic; the first love was a detour. But again and again, youth in all its spunk saves the day, and it is still easy to rise from the ashes.
There are the letters from the achievers, of course, oftentimes five to ten years after graduation. It is always in request for a recommendation letter for further studies—a masters degree, perhaps, or a doctoral degree. I always joke with them about how my life remains the same while everybody else’s moves so quickly. I joke with them too that they probably make more money than I do. The elation here is different—a deeper tone is taken. It is the tone of someone who has found a purpose in life. It is not so much advice they need. Rather, it is a witness to give some kind of affirmation of their choices or confirmation of their individuality. In the workforce, it’s easy to be a cog in a very big wheel. It’s affirming when someone who has known them for some time says otherwise.
And then there are letters that are much harder to answer—the letters of lost souls, of those who have not yet found themselves and are still clueless about what piece of sky is theirs. These are much harder to answer and, I’m guessing, much harder to write, primarily because the last thing a student wants to do is to write a letter to a former teacher. The first hindrance is obvious—there is fear that their grammar will be wrong or their argumentation faulty! (They spend a paragraph or two apologizing way more than necessary.) The primary relationship rears its critical head, and some other force must come forward for a student to commit to paper one’s lost-ness. That force is called honesty.
The core of their question is simply this: How can I do what I most want to do? Is it too late for me to change careers?
One of the first things I’ve noticed about the quality of being lost is that, for many, many years, these students have spent an inordinate amount of time pleasing others—so yes, they took that first course Daddy wanted; or they took that job Mommy wanted; or they took that position Lolo saved for them; or they did what was expected of them. At the time, it may have seemed that it was the better thing to do or the safer thing to do and the most loving thing to do. These are character-defining moments—choices made, a sign of self-knowledge.
This is perhaps the saddest part. More often that not, the students are lost not necessarily because they do not know who they are, but more because they have chosen to be someone else. When you’re young, it feels as if you can do this forever, as you have no concept of time. You can live someone else’s life for a long time, maybe even forever, with enough motivation. But—and it’s a big but—not everybody can.
And for these students, a clearing must be made, a new path taken, a new spine grown, and the inevitable question is asked: How do I find myself again?
I know they want practical advice from me (Take further studies! Apply at this place! Meet this person!), but I am a literature teacher and inevitably end up telling them this true story that changed my life: Once, I met an old man. I had met him years earlier in a forum where he was introduced as a top honcho in a top company. In that forum, you could feel how powerful he was. But you could feel how lonely he was too. I don’t know why I knew that, but he had a way of looking at his shoes—as if to test if he actually had the power to walk away.
He was sitting on a bench, and beside him was a board game. I sat beside him, and we played this game. He would later reveal that it was he who had designed the game and that he was going around schools testing it out. I couldn’t help myself and asked what happened to his head honcho gig? He smiled such a big smile and told me he had left that job. I asked why, and his answer was simple—it wasn’t enough. It did not feed his soul. The harder question came next: “How did you become a game maker?” His answer is something I will remember forever.
“I went back to my childhood and tried to remember what I liked to do when I was a child. I’m telling you, Rica, when you are lost, go back to your first loves. It will tell you where you should go.”
This man’s example taught me two things: I did not want to do something that did not feed my soul. But, more importantly, he taught me that one could change and change one’s path, no matter one’s age. Apparently, what separates the lost from the found is that lovely quality called courage.

(Photo by D Sharon Pruitt via Flickr.com )
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