Five years ago was a hard time.
In the middle of the God-awful time I was having in my personal life, I had a calm-in-the-storm opportunity to catch up with an old friend. Wise Old Turtle, we’ll call this friend. Wise Old Turtle is not one for keeping in touch, and Wise Old Turtle is not much for social media. So in this day and age, we had the rare experience of catching up the old fashioned way, by talking. Digging into what we’d been up to for the previous, oh, 17 years, and presenting our take on the highs and lows from current perspective. Neither of us even had a smart phone yet, so there were no photos to rely on for proof of anything. Just words, and eye contact. The retro stuff.
We gave each other the highlights: What we did after college. Places we’d lived, trips we’d taken, career paths, kids. I put my best face on, but I was frankly in the middle of one of the worst times of my life. I had recently suffered a pregnancy loss which was consuming all my emotional energy. You don’t want to throw that one out there. My marriage was at a low point – also not share-worthy. My kids were at an age where they were young enough to still be needy and old enough to have started sassing me, making me feel like an abject failure. Well, at least you can spin that one by making them sound cute. I was working in two jobs, one of which was in my chosen profession but I was frustrated with it, and the other was teaching ballet, which was allowing me to keep alive a creative passion that I’d always assumed I was just keeping as an outlet of sorts. It was about to turn into something amazing but hadn’t really blossomed yet. I was in a rough spot emotionally and beating myself up for not using my degree to the extent that I had once thought I would, or having much to show for the “other thing.” Hard to know how to package that up neatly.
Wise Old Turtle, on the other hand, is a career person; seriously kick-ass career awesomeness, changing the world one day at a time, on a trajectory since birth to do exactly one thing and do it astoundingly well. Or at least that’s how I saw it. Luckily Wise Old Turtle was also a trusted friend, so I didn’t feel judged for a second, but, cue my inferiority complex anyway.
To validate the amount of time and effort I was putting into my not-yet-blossomed life, I shared a story about a student I had once had, I’ll call her Spirit, who had reached back to me through the years to thank me. See, the thing about teaching is you don’t always know who you touch in the moment, and rare is the student who will let you know about it later. But I had one. Spirit had gone on to rock the world in a completely different creative field, yet on occasion would get in touch and say, “You made me believe I could do this,” or, “If you hadn’t made me want to express myself, I never would be doing this today,” or, “You opened a door I didn’t know existed, and I am so grateful.”
Wise Old Turtle doesn’t work in a creative field, but has unbelievable acuity when reading people. Wise Old Turtle could tell that teaching, and the creative work, not just the gratitude from Spirit, really lit me up, but that I was judging myself.
This was entirely true. Whenever I heard from Spirit, I thought, “Woah. She’s awesome. Look at her go! I can’t believe she’d say something like that about me,” instead of, “Woah, I’m awesome. Look at her go! And I had a hand in that! I’m so glad she told me.” I was looking at a piece of paper I had earned from school and telling myself, “According to this paper, you are good at ‘A’, so a life of ‘A’ you shall have, or your dollars invested and time on this planet shall be considered a waste,” instead of listening to my heart which told me, “You learned so much from ‘A’, and you will use it in more ways than you can ever hope to realize when you are on a much happier and more fulfilling life of ‘B’, so do what you love.” Life being a non-linear experience was not something I had begun to accept yet. And the state of my unhappiness at that moment was aiding and abetting the poisoning I was doing of my own thoughts.
“I think it’s amazing that you can do something you love, that’s so creative, and it makes a difference to people,” Wise Old Turtle reassured me with kindness that in the moment, in my funk, I shrugged off. It has obviously resonated over the years, but right then, I scoffed. It didn’t measure up to a super-career saving the planet. It wasn’t what I was “supposed to be doing.” It was only one person. One.
Wise Old Turtle then said something that has stuck with me ever since, every minute of my life, and changed me entirely: “Well, what more could you want? Someone came back and told you. Imagine how many there are that don’t. That doesn’t make you happy? Proud? Honestly, what would be good enough for you? What’s your magic number? 50? 200? And even if it was only one person whose life you changed, you are making a difference to someone. One should be enough.”
After we said our goodbyes, I got into my car and thought I was going to cry. The same flooding feeling rushed up from my chest and guts that would usually have been accompanied by uncontrollable sobbing, and I had done a fair bit of it that year. But no tears came. Just a feeling of validation welling up into the empty places I’d been feeling, and slowly, ever so slowly, came acceptance that life is messy, and hard, but that we all find our paths in different ways, with different teachers at different times helping to show us the way.
I have been so fortunate to have many amazing teachers over the years, some in the classroom, some elsewhere. Some family, some mentors. Some peers, some friends. Some are my students. Spirit was my student in the classroom, but I was hers in life, because she embraced her passion without hesitation, and I was so slow to take the wheel with my own. Wise Old Turtle was my dear friend, but in that moment also turned out to be my Best Teacher Ever, just by saying what I so obviously needed to hear, at exactly the right time for me to hear it. And so, my life changed forever at a tiny Indian restaurant on Georgia Avenue.
Over the past five years, I have learned over and over, that one should have been enough. But I’ve also learned that by doing what I love, I make a difference to far more than one. I’m not going to hit the mark for every single one, but for some, what I do will make them light up or point them toward something that will. So every day, I just meet them each where they are, one at a time.
Thank you, Wise Old Turtle. Thank you, Spirit. You are the bread to my Awesome Sandwich.
One more lesson from that day, for all of us: Put down your phone. You could be someone’s Best Teacher Ever too, just by being human, and present.