A High School English Teacher’s reply to Matthew McConaughey & Number 13
This morning as I was power walking to my gate for my flight to Chicago, I received an email 13 Lessons Learned… By Matthew McConaughey.
And after an all night drive from New Hampshire to Cleveland, and two hours of sleep, I paused.
For a split second, I had a delusional thought pop into my tired head: what if… what if Matthew McConaughey saw my chapel talk?
I, too, am a fan of number 13. Here’s my talk from April:
13 Ways of Looking at Learning and Living
Reading from Luke 6:42:
“Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.”
Please sit down. Thank you.
Thank you, Cole, for that introduction.
It is humbling to be here. To speak to you today is an incredible opportunity — to come together as a community — and one I do not take lightly.
I thank Vestry & Rev. Squire for having me here today.
Let’s begin with gratitude. I believe a key to happiness is gratitude.
Right now, I want you to think of three things you are grateful for.
Take a moment. Be specific. Get clear. Now, say hello to the person next to you. Smile and share a few words of gratitude with that person.
Okay. Now, if I can have your attention…
My hope in allowing you a moment to say hello to the person next to you is that for the next few minutes I will have your undivided attention.
Today’s reading is one that I have meditated on for fifteen years since the death of my brother, Conor. After eight years of struggling with bipolar disorder, my brother died by suicide February 26, 2000. He did not leave behind a note, but on his bed, he left open his Bible to Luke. Today’s reading is one of the verses from those two pages. I have read and reread those pages — today’s verses — searching for meaning — for years.
I often think of how quick I was to judge. How I was a hypocrite in giving him advice…
How I was blind to my own faults and shortcomings…
How I failed him…
How I should have been more compassionate and less judgmental.
But I can’t repeat the past.
I will never know his intention. I can only imagine what verse he wanted us to read — what strength from the Bible he wanted us to take?
What verse did he read last?
I have had to let go of some of these stories.
Fifteen years later it still feels like yesterday. It is still difficult to believe.
As suicide survivors, my family has been left with questions that will never be answered. Indeed, the dark side of the subjunctive possibilities — what if…?
In 2011, I gave a keynote address at a walk for suicide prevention and education about mental illness. Perhaps, one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my life was to speak in front of 1500 hundred people, many families like mine; yet, it was a cathartic, empowering experience, and I take some solace in knowing that my family’s pain of losing Conor may help other families — and maybe save lives.
I invite you to watch the YouTube video which frees me today to share my thoughts on learning, a couple poems, as well as a few untold stories that — who knows — you may need to hear.
I will spare you the David Copperfield life story — and give you the abridged version. I grew up in Cleveland Ohio; attended boarding school at Phillips Academy on full financial aid in Andover, MA; then, college at the University of Pennsylvania; followed by grad school at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. Let’s be candid — that’s a resume — not a life story.
Instead, to begin, let me share a poem by Robert Frost.
by ROBERT FROST
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain — and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
In my 13 years of teaching, I have found tremendous solace and power in poetry. Part of my message today is:
Find poets. Read poetry in this month of April.
Discover poetry that has meaning to you.
At 41 years old, I am more conscious than ever before of how precious life is — and how short life can be.
As some of you know, in September, my beloved 93 year-old grandmother, my mother’s mother, passed away in her sleep. The same week of her funeral, we learned my dad had stage 4 esophageal cancer. Nearly two months later, November 12th, my father joined my grandmother and my brother.
I feel fortunate to have been at home with my father for his final days. Their legacy of love is with me today.
Both my father and grandmother believed in the power of education, rising from humble beginnings through independent learning, mostly outside of formal schooling.
Yet, it is with spring in the air, after a long, cold winter, and in the spirit of renewal and rebirth, I wish to share a few stories and 13 quick lessons I have learned in my 13 years of teaching.
Taking liberties with 13 Ways of Looking a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens, I present to you:
13 Ways of Looking at Learning and Living
1. Always start with “why?”
Why learn? Why read? Why write?
Why listen to me today?
Good questions. The ultimate advice: Know Thyself.
2. Two mindsets: Growth versus Fixed.
My favorite quote of Henry Ford:
“If you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right.”
Much of life is self-fulfilling. Believe that you can — just not yet.
When I was a little kid in fourth grade, I was going to my first track meet composed of all the area schools. Coddling me, my mom said, “Kevin, you may be the fastest in your class of sixteen, but, understand, there are going to be a lot of other kids…”
It was annoying, but sure enough, there were hundreds of kids at the meet when we arrived. Before I left her, I asked why she did that, “Mom, why do you always talk like that? It sounds like you think I’m going to fail.” Surprised, she thought for a minute and asked me what I wanted her to say.
I simply replied, “Go for it.”
Today, I realize she was only trying to protect me. From then on, “Go for it.” Those three words would serve as our mantra. Over the weekend, when I shared that I was a bit apprehensive about giving this talk, she looked at me, smiled, and said, “Go for it.”
3. What motivates us?
Three words: Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose.
I will let Daniel Pink explain the rest. (Watch this RSA video when you have a chance.)
4. The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz
We need to remember The Four Agreements:
1. Be Impeccable with your Word. (Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the Word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your Word in the direction of truth and love.)
2. Don’t Take Anything Personally. (Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.)
3. Don’t Make Assumptions. (Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.)
4. Always Do Your Best. (Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.)
I read this book in 2009. It has helped quiet the noise in my mind. It will save you much angst and drama if you read it. Be impeccable with your word, I believe, is the hardest.
5. Five Stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.
There’s power in knowledge — and understanding what you’re going through.
Here’s a poem that touches on these stages of grief.
BY JOHN DONNE
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow.
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
There are no rules 1–5, only 6 — and that’s not to take yourself too seriously.
In our family, we remind ourselves, “If you can’t laugh, you cry.”
I realize it’s hard to make a joke here at chapel, after what I just shared.
Remember, it is natural to be embarrassed, but if we let it, shame and embarrassment can be deadly.
One thing you can count on in life. Things change.
I promise you, “This too shall pass.”
Little story: In 5th grade, I won the lip sync contest, dancing to El Debarge’s “Rhythm of the Night.” My mom was impressed having been a dance major. One of her prized possessions is a recording of me lip synching which has haunted me most of my life. (Topic of previous chapel talk.)
It’s taken time, but finally…I can laugh. Stay tuned. I will post it to YouTube soon.
7. Lucky number 7: I do not believe in luck.
That has been said many times…
No power in superstition — superstitions are stories.
If the story does not serve you, you have to let that story go. Don’t be a victim of other stories — of gossip, fate, or circumstance.
We have a motto for our team: No excuses.
It serves us well.
8. Be Great.
Don’t play small. Let’s talk about big issues.
Let’s talk about issues that matter — about Race, Equality.
Writer and activists Jeff Chang calls “Racism…a specific kind of refusal, a denial of empathy, a mass-willed blindness.”
With regard to income and education inequality in America, and throughout the world, there are opportunities now to connect and learn through technology; however, we must tackle these issues face-to-face in conversation.
Again, I return to Daniel Pink. He’s a mentor to me — and I’ve never met the man.
10. “The first 10 years are the hardest.”
At a yoga workshop, Rolf Gates, a master teacher and former Army Ranger was sharing his story. He is the embodiment of what Brene Brown calls The Power of Vulnerability (a must watch TED Talk). Rolf’s life in the military was followed by heavy drinking which ultimately led him on a destructive path until he hit bottom. The support he received from Alcoholics Anonymous led him to meditation and yoga.
Six months into his practice he lost his sister to suicide, and without his practice of yoga, his faith, his discipline with meditation, he would have relapsed or worse. His emotional story resonated with me on a deep level. In a room full of yogis, I sat listening quietly as tears poured down my face. At a break, we talked. He told me the first 10 years are the hardest… and he was right.
11. Going back to 9/11 2001
I was working in NYC, living what was once a dream of mine — to work in the film business. I worked on Serendipity, the teen classic Swimfan, and landed a job as assistant to the president of GreeneStreet Films in Tribeca.
That beautiful Tuesday morning on my walk across lower Manhattan, the first plane flew over my head at Canal and Hudson street. I walked towards the towers — and from just a few blocks away at Chambers and Greenwich Street, I stopped and I watched…
I will never forget that day.
Soon after, I decided I wanted to teach. Being a teacher has been my role now for thirteen years.
At my previous school, three years ago, I was teaching my sophomores Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (which I read as a student before going to boarding school at fourteen years old).
In a coffee shop one afternoon, I was reading it again (for what felt like the first time). I had an epiphany. It was like I was seeing the following words for the first time.
Towards the end, Salinger writes (as narrator Holden Caulfield):
“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around-nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
My epiphany reading in a coffee shop, (again, I am sensitive, so tears pouring down my face…)
Since my brother’s death and 9/11, I had become a teacher, coach, and mentor — a catcher in the rye — not merely trying to make a difference, but trying to save lives.
We all save lives every day, and we don’t even know it.
Through compassion, we save lives — sometimes by just saying hello.
You have no idea what it means to connect.
What’s your story? What’s going on?
We’re all connected.
12. What will be your legacy?
Keep it simple.
Be kind. Be Kind. Be Kind.
13. This is it. Be present.
We get stuck in the past.
We plan for the future, or wait in limbo and uncertainty, for our real lives to begin, someday…
It’s not easy, and you’re never alone.
Make life good.
For you, for others. If you begin with others, it will be good for you.
Meditate. Do yoga.
Find your passion — your purpose. Make it fun.
Forgive yourself — forgive others — often.
Remember rule No. 6.
I don’t know all of you, but I love you.
Please take care of each other like brothers and sisters.
Remember, love never fails. But remember to love with compassion.
Live, Love, Learn.
Peace be with you.
Hope you enjoyed it. J.K. Livin.