Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Forward Path - 7 August 2011

Accepting the Challenge

“When you feel the noose around your neck begin to choke, it’s time to stop pulling on the rope.” – me

This is the first of a trilogy of posts that traces the sequence of events that brought me to the forward path.  Six years ago, I was about as far away from it as anyone can be.  By that I mean not moving at all; I was completely stopped, cemented in place.  You might think that going backwards would be worse than not going anywhere; but going backwards at least involves movement, and of course sometimes it’s necessary to go back in order to go forward.  I think being stationary is worse, because there is no movement at all, and what follows is slow suffocation.  When all is said and done, stationary is what the guy hanging at the end of the rope is. 

I had been working as a letter carrier for some years, at least four or five, and had been content during that time to live a very low-demand, low-reward working life.  After the failure of my comic strip, and before that my career in banking, I sought to tuck myself away in a  quiet little corner, where expectations could easily be met, and all work-related responsibility ended at the timeclock.  Being a mailman was ideally suited to these two towering career goals.  I wasn’t happy, that was true; the job was way too easy, and left my mind far too disengaged for far too many hours every day.  I tried to fill the emptiness in my head with music, and sports-talk radio.  When that lost its ability to charm, I began listening to The Teaching Company’s “Great Courses” on my MP3 player, and devoured series after series voraciously, able at least to feed some of my intellectual curiosity, and therefore relieve a good deal of mental fidgeting.  Away from work, I began following the advice of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who said that “you should give the best part of your day to writing.” I started getting up very early, often at 4:00 a.m., so I could write for a few hours before getting ready.  It felt good to write; I felt energized by it.  But I wasn’t doing anything with what I wrote, except for allowing Elizabeth and a few trusted friends to read the occasional essay.  My productive life had flatlined.  I was in a surreal, semi-anaesthetized state, content but miserable at heart. 
It was Pat Tillman’s death in 2004 that shook me loose from lotus land and caused me to begin questioning myself.  Pat Tillman was a football player whose personality fascinated me, and whose football career I had followed closely, first collegiately at Arizona State University, and then professionally with the Arizona Cardinals.  I struggled profoundly with the need to understand his life and resolve it with the manner of his death (he was killed by friendly fire while serving as an Army Ranger in Afghanistan).  I eventually wrote an essay detailing my prolonged efforts to make sense of it all.  However, in writing the essay, I was forced to recognize a terrible and inescapable fact about myself, a fact which surfaced from the stark contrast between his life and mine.  As I saw it, Pat had possessed a driving passion for challenges and an insatiable desire to test himself in many different ways throughout his life.  The only thing I had passionately committed myself to was avoiding exactly those same things.  The pattern of my past choices, once I looked at it in those terms, was crystal clear and pathetically undeniable.  I had been guilty of taking the easy road.  I had chosen to avoid making tough choices and opted instead for comfortable ones.  I had turned away from challenges whenever I could see them coming.  I had avoided confrontation out of fear.  I was guilty of all these things, and had never been forced to call myself on it.  The example of Pat’s life somehow broke through this previously impenetrable, invisible barrier.  It was a difficult fact to have to face.  I looked into the future, twenty or thirty years, and imagined the kind of life, the kind of person I would be if I remained a mailman, and I couldn’t stand what I saw.  I was suddenly stricken with fear that I would have to face God at some point, and explain exactly how I wasted the talent and the gifts He had given me.  It caused a visceral reaction; it made me feel like throwing up. 

In retrospect, this would have been a golden opportunity to take the forward path, and pursue the writing career I knew I always truly wanted.  But I suppose I wasn’t ready for that yet.  Besides, there was this little nagging voice that had existed in my mind for years.  It spoke quietly, but persistently enough that I could disregard it without much effort, but never dismiss it entirely.  It said that I should try teaching.  In many ways, it was an absurd thought.  I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher, and I could list any number of reasons why, many of them very ugly to me.  And yet, the thought stubbornly refused to leave.  With others, when the conversation would turn to future plans, I would often play it off by joking that “if all else failed, teaching was my career of last resort.” That allowed me to acknowledge the possibility while simultaneously shoving it back into an indefinite future.  But no matter how many good reasons I could imagine why teaching would be a huge mistake, I could never quite remove that irritating sliver in my mind. 

The aftermath of Pat Tillman’s death managed to transform the way I looked at the idea of teaching.  Instead of regarding it only at arm’s length, I began examining it closely, with more curiosity than fear.  The more time I spent with the possibility of it, the more I started to believe that teaching was a way out, a way to begin facing my fears, and a very worthy arena in which to challenge myself.  I came to believe that it might just be my calling.   

Suddenly, instead of seeing hundreds of reasons why I shouldn’t teach, I began only to see reasons why I should.  For one thing, I had always been agonizingly shy, and had always dreaded, with pathological intensity, being the center of attention.  I knew that teaching would require me to make a drastic, and necessary, personality adjustment.  I knew from my experiences as a student that the teacher who isn’t the center of attention in the classroom is roadkill. 

Another challenge would be the students themselves.  As a mailman, I was used to interacting with all kinds of people in the community, although on a very cursory level.  However, as the years went on, and the circle of my life grew smaller and smaller, small enough that I was beginning to feel it closing around my neck, I noticed that I was becoming more nervous and suspicious around kids, especially teenagers.  If there were more than one or two standing around, I would avoid them, and would typically try my best to ignore them, regardless of the nature of their questions or comments.  I would become apprehensive as the end of the school-day approached, a feeling which increased exponentially with my proximity to a school.  I gave thanks for the blast-furnace heat of June, July, and August, because it kept them indoors over summer break.  I developed an irrational mindset that every teenager was looking for a confrontation.  These feelings bothered me greatly, because I didn’t like what they suggested about me.  If nothing else, teaching would resolve this, either by dispelling my accumulating fears as false, or by substantiating them at least with empirical evidence. 

Lastly, I would have to confront my reluctance to be in charge of anything important.  When I worked in banking, I once had to let someone go, not because she did anything wrong, but simply because cuts were being made.  I instantly lost my taste for management, and had assiduously avoided being put in that position ever since.  Taking charge of the development of the most important skills people need to function successfully in this society – language skills – for 150 (or more) students at a time would definitely present a challenge to my fear of responsibility. 

There were also motivations to challenge myself that went beyond exorcising some personal demons.  I knew I wanted to do something more “important” than delivering endless slips of paper in a continuous loop of futility, as I saw it.  Some latent part of me yearned to make a difference.  I wanted to help, I wanted to do something positive, I wanted to serve others.  However, thanks to what I learned from Pat, I could no longer place any value on merely wanting to do these things.  To me, wanting to make a difference was now lower than nothing.  It was less than worthless, and it was an insult to those who were actually engaged in doing that difficult work. I found myself cornered.  To redeem myself with myself, I had to take action.

So, by means of self-inflicted shame, I finally found the courage and resolve to try something that absolutely terrified me.  In 2006, I enrolled in an online master’s program at Grand Canyon University, signing up for a degree in secondary education.  I would graduate in December of 2007, and begin teaching with the new year.  I had taken the first uncertain step away from the rock I had been hiding under for so long. And without really understanding it at the time, by accepting the challenge I had begun seeking the forward path.       


  1. Kevin,

    I was surprised to read that you were so shy. You have come a long way. I look forward to your musings. I have an RSS feed so they come to my mailbox. Keep 'em coming! Hope McK

  2. Hope McK - I can't find the reply I sent you for this comment, so I'll just summarize as best I can. Yes, I was painfully shy, and still am in some ways, although I've made a heap of progress in that department. Thanks for the comments, and I will do my level best to keep you entertained!