This last month, before going back to school to teach full-time for the first time since last fall, I've been spending some downtime with David McCullough, Jr. You Are NOT Special...and Other Encouragements (2014) is ostensibly directed to recent high school graduates--I first saw this at Titcomb's with several other grad-gift possibilities--but it certainly succeeds in pitching to a much wider audience.
I felt him hailing me in two particularly distinct ways. First, as a high school teacher, he's working through the ways in which the classroom can become an empowering laboratory of life (not a perfunctory placeholder to dismiss casually in opposition to "real life"). He draws upon the literature he teaches to illustrate his thoughtful, sometimes intentionally meandering, essays on growing up (however unconsciously) with power and privilege in the 21st Century.
McCullough also hailed me as a new father. In the chapter entitled "So Live" (Bryant!), he meditates on the birth of his third child, pointing out the heartbreaking reality that someday... his son will die. This is one step removed from the usual dread-of-death that stays in the first person, and begins to extend the logic out across generations...
I can imagine DH growing up--and knowing that I'll be Social-Security eligible by the time he graduates high school, I can imagine my own death. But this was the first time I'd ever been confronted with the notion that, too, my son will die. God. I start welling up again at the thought of it.
But, of course, this is true of everyone. The great equalizer. None of us knows our time. All the more reason to carpe that diem for all of us while there are days to be had.
McCullough writes of talking with a beloved senior teacher at his first job, looking for words of wisdom for how to give the students what they need from him in the classroom. What this mentor offers up clearly speaks to matters far beyond (though still including) school:
After the expected pleasantries, I asked, not quite tugging a forelock, what advice he might have for a new teacher. Blue eyes igniting, a grin erupting as if he'd been waiting all morning for just such a question, Miki leaned his big face at me and with an open hand gave the table a whack. "Brudah," he bellowed--through the years he would always call me that--"just love it! Love everything!" To be sure I got it he banged on the table again. Then, settling back in his seat, he hoisted a new smile, the kind often described as wry. "And have an idea what you're talking about" (298-299).
With syllabus revisions starting in earnest, and the work-life balance necessarily being scrutinized anew with both parents simultaneously back to work full-time for the first time, McCullough's book has helped me work through some of the anxiety. We are not special either--millions of parents have been in our shoes, and made it through just fine.
Though of course my family is also "not special" in the sense that my family (like everyone's family) is THE most special thing. Love everything--and keep telling those you love how much you love them.