It is true that those we meet can change us, sometimes so profoundly that we are not the same afterward, even unto our names. (Yann Martel, The Life of Pi)
Ever since reading the story of Pi Patel and his lifeboat companions -- the man-eating Bengal tiger Richard Parker, a hyena, a zebra and Orange Juice, an orangutan -- I’ve tried to plot how the people with me in my own life’s boat have changed me, and how I, in turn, have influenced their becoming.
At sixty-years-old, I have too many data points to make sense of, but like Pi, I realize that many of my encounters with others have moved me in profound ways. Of course, there’s the family in which I grew up, the stories we share at reunions and the stories I tell no one but my wife. And then there is the family my wife and I have created together -- our marriage, our daughters, and granddaughters -- each powerful influencers, softening my rough edges, opening my eyes, calming my anxieties. I am a kinder, more patient man because of them. And my students, and athletes, and colleagues, and friends -- so many over the last 37 years on this hill. Some have left just traces of themselves with me, but others have forced me to reckon.
I love that verb, “reckon.” Its informality belies its geodesic array of meaning. To reckon is to reason, to believe, to think, to measure, to gauge, to figure out, to be of the opinion, to hold a view, to suspect, to have a hunch or a feeling, to imagine, to fancy, to guess, to suppose, to assume, to surmise, to conjecture, and to consider. Reckoning is what we do, mostly privately, when we try to figure out what’s what, what to do next, when to act, when to speak up, when to be silent and just listen. Reckoning is the mindful, empathic, in-the-moment rudder of our everyday voyage.
Pi must reckon when he is on the boat with Richard Parker. How will he feed himself, hydrate himself, and keep himself from being eaten by a man-eating Bengal tiger? The very presence of Richard Parker pries open Pi’s mind (and heart) to think and to be different from the ways he has thought and been before this moment on the boat. Were Pi not ready to engage in this reckoning, he and Richard Parker would not have survived their intimate journey across the Pacific.
And my journey...?
Here’s a moment of reckoning: When I was a high school junior, at the end of my baseball season, parents and players gathered in the school’s cafeteria to celebrate the season. Toward the end of the event, my coach, Jim Presher, called up the team, one-by-one. Of course, he had something to say about each one of us, and when my turn came, he introduced me as “a true gentleman.” I was surprised.
Those three words, “a true gentleman” have remained with me for the last 44 years. So many words hurled in my direction over the years have left me forever -- the difference between mitosis and myosis, between stalactite and stalagmite, between “imply” and “infer,” between Reaganomics and Keynesian theory. Google’s got my back when I forget these distinctions.
So why have Coach Presher’s three words, “a true gentleman,” uttered at this particularly non-academic moment when I was sixteen, stayed with me, like a burr from the pucker brush?
Are we Prophets?
He could not predict the future, but somehow, Coach Presher saw in me what I could not see in myself when I was sixteen. And before this gathering of teammates, parents and school administrators, he gave me the gift of his vision.
Sophocles’ Oedipus reminds us of just how powerful prophecy can be. It can ruin a life, an entire royal line, even. But prophecy can build a life as well. Now, at 60, I can say that Coach Presher’s prophecy has helped me build mine. Many times, but not always, his three words have pushed me away from arrogance and pulled me toward the very victims of arrogance and other injustices. His words have reminded me to be patient, respectful and hopeful in moments when it is easy to jettison all three virtues. They have encouraged me to think and to act like “a true gentleman.”
Ready to “Reckon.”
These three words, “a true gentleman,” were no threat to me in the same way Richard Parker threatened Pi’s existence. Yet, like the Bengal Tiger in the lifeboat, Coach Presher’s words pushed me into wonder, into reflection, and into “reckoning”. How many times in my 16 years had I failed to live up to those three words? Was my interpersonal balance sheet in the black or, I feared, woefully in the red? And what about that feeling, that warm goodness, I experienced as I walked to join my teammates in the front of the cafeteria in the glow of those three words? Had I earned it? Might I, one day, earn it?
Now, as I look back on that moment, I realize I was ready for this reckoning. I wasn’t always ready. Had this event happened sometime earlier in my life, or maybe later, the words might have just skimmed over the surface of my mind without lodging themselves in any meaningful way to the person I was becoming. But I was ready, and the three words stuck.
As Frost writes at the end of “The Road Not Taken,” this lucky nexus of prophecy and readiness to reckon has made “all the difference.”
As adults whose lives abut and swirl around and within the world of Student Life, we too have the power of prophecy. We often recognize in our teenagers what they do not yet see in themselves. Sometimes our students perceive us as the Bengal tiger in their lifeboats, challenging them to think differently, to question their ways of being, to reckon what’s what in their lives. But, at least as often we enjoy encouraging our student with a vision of their potential, guiding them with the paradoxical mantras:
You are, already, so much more than enough!
Together, let's create ways for us to grow even more!
These moments in the boat with teenagers, whether we are Richard Parker or Coach Presher, matter. As teachers, coaches, advisors, dorm parents, college counselors, we create these moments for those teenagers in our care. We can never know if they are ready to truly reckon with our coaching, our prophecy, our feedback, but if we don’t create these moments, we will surely miss the moments when they are ready, and the chance to make “all the difference.”