For those that have known me for a long time, they know that school was not easy for me. In fact, I remember when I finally graduated from high school, back in the mid 1980’s, my sister Mary Lynne said, “I won’t believe it until I see him walk across the platform.”
So, it’s nice now, being in my fifties, with two daughters who work hard and are successful at school, that I can reminisce about myself as a young person and student. That is, I look back in time – my now perspective – and I examine the story of myself relative to my school experience. I’m not sure I would advocate this for everyone, especially if you knew it was a bit of a train wreck. But, in the spirit of narrative, let me take you on a journey. No doubt, some of you will identify with my reflections.
Here’s a quick history of my school career. Kindergarten to grade five was at Ecole St-Jean in Timmins, Ontario. Ecole St-Jean was a French Catholic elementary school, even though I was an English-speaking Protestant at home. My parents wanted me to be bilingual. After my father’s death when I was eight years old, the family moves started happening. By the time the dust would settle on my formal school experiences, I attended two middle schools, five high schools and four universities. All of this resulted in, by the time I was thirty-seven, a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and an MBA in finance. Don’t be too impressed, though, as the journey was chaotic. Then again, considering the absolute chaos of the journey, perhaps we should be impressed. I guess it depends on how we frame the narrative.
Narrative depends on your point of view, that is, how you chose to look at or frame a story. The five high schools I referenced were quite the scene. While my memory may be a bit fuzzy, I’m pretty sure I was asked to leave a couple of them, and I’m pretty sure I left a couple of them on my own. It’s not that I was a bad kid, truth be told, I mostly struggled with actually finding the school. Every day I would head out in the morning towards school but for some reason, would be diverted between home and the morning bell. This was my real problem – I simply did not want to be in school, and unlike a lot of other kids who felt the same way, I seemed to have the misguided nerve to actually veer off and do something different with my day.
To be brutally honest, I was a truant. Just to prove the point, I remember in grade twelve, two teachers at Rideau High School in Elgin Ontario tried to help me by having a board professional come down from the local board office to meet with me and offer guidance. The two teachers were Mark Tympani, the gym teacher, and Ron Dobbs, the school guidance counselor.
The meeting was set. The board professional would drive over an hour to our rural high school to meet with me and analyze me in an attempt to ascertain why I never showed up at school. The day of the meeting, I didn’t show up. I didn’t show up for the meeting about why I didn’t show up for school. Ron Dobbs, the guidance counselor, was furious with me. However, in hindsight, I am not sure why we were surprised. Let’s face it, I had problems showing up to school.
Remind me later to close the loop on the story with Mark Tympani and Ron Dobbs.
This particular story is one of my rearview mirror reflections. One of my hitchhiker go-tos. You know, where the hitchhiker in your head takes you back in time and says, “What the heck were you thinking man?” This is because the hitchhiker only lives in one-time zone, which is the past. He’s sitting in the car, and every time you try to go ahead on a new road or go around a corner, he pushes the rearview mirror into your face. It’s his favorite and only move – he pushes the rearview mirror right into your face so all you can see is what’s behind you. The road up ahead is no longer visible; where you are at that exact moment is no longer visible. The rearview mirror is small, and the windshield is huge, but only what’s in the past is within your sight. Meanwhile, while he’s holding the rearview mirror in your face, he’s jamming you with insults. That’s right. You’re trying to make the corner, get down the road a bit, and the hitchhiker is jamming you with criticism and abuses. His voice is piercing and dissonant; it hurts to hear it. It’s a rude ringing in your ears that won’t go away, “What the heck were you thinking, man?”
Now, like many adults in their fifties, I do spend some time thinking about the hitchhiker’s question, “What were you thinking, man?” And here’s the irony, after years of trying to answer the question, the best I can come up with is…I was thinking I just didn’t want to go to school that day. I know, I get it. This is not very helpful or insightful. Now, I do want you to know one thing relative to what you may be thinking. Was I a lazy kid? The answer to that is “no”. In fact, I recall a statement my childhood friend Ian Goodfellow once said that many of us seem to have an “overabundance of unproductive energy.”
In my case, the overabundance of unproductive energy was driven by an overabundance of unproductive enthusiasm. And school did not support my enthusiasm. What was driving this enthusiasm? To answer that, we need to go back and examine an interesting point of my high school career. This is the point that even though I was not showing up for school, I did manage to read a select few books assigned to my English class. That is, even though I was not showing up, was not taking the tests, there were a few books, and one poem, that I did read on my own time.
I studied the poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service and I read the books “Catcher in the Rye”, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, and “Where the Red Fern Grows”. If you know these stories, you will see a common theme. Each protagonist is on some soul-searching journey, a life adventure, a trip through the mountains, or across the city, searching for gold or the equivalence. They are looking for meaning, trying to fill a void that exists in their soul.
They weren’t sitting in school staring at a blackboard.
And so, as I look back three decades, I realize I had some Huck Finn juice in my veins. I wanted to be on my homemade raft floating down the Mississippi. I wanted a perpetual adventure – people, places, and events. Unfortunately, this sounds more romantic than it was in reality. While rafts and rivers did play into it a few times, most days as a truant were spent driving down backroads, sitting around campfires in the bush or fishing on a lake – and generally with a few bottles of beer. You know what? Maybe we were Huck Finn in our own way considering what resources we had available at the time. The key point is the feeling of wanting to be on an adventure, the feeling that there is something out there calling you, the feeling that your soul is searching…searching for something that feels so close it must be just around the next corner.
In many respects, this feeling never left me. I recall a memory from when I was twenty-six and finally getting my bachelor’s degree. At this point, I was mature enough to know that I needed an education and a career, so I forced myself to show up and finish. It was not academically stellar, but completion was achieved. How I ended up with a degree in pure mathematics is still an unsolved family mystery.
Anyway, I have a vivid memory, and this is my reflection on that memory. I was in math class at the University of Windsor, in Windsor, Ontario. This particular classroom had a row of windows on the left side that faced out with a view of the Ambassador Bridge. The Ambassador Bridge is a large suspension bridge that connects Detroit, Michigan with Windsor, Ontario. It is one of, if not, the busiest international border crossings in North America. My classroom was literally right beside the Canadian end of the bridge. And so, class after class, I would take a chair hugging the window and I would watch the cars and trucks moving continuously across the bridge. I remember the feeling that each vehicle represented a story, a narrative, and I had the feeling that each vehicle was on an adventure. This produced in me a powerful feeling of restlessness, sensing and knowing that the world is out there calling me. The bridge was a conduit to all things possible. The starting point of some amazing road trip.
I still have these feelings, and I believe it’s a good thing. You see, I am a reflector. That is, I have become a life learner, and to be a learner means to reflect. Although, I allow the hitchhiker in my mind to have too much power over me. The hitchhiker likes me to mull over, and sometimes regret, past decisions to ruin the future by using the present to think about the past…and always the perceived negative past at that!
And one of these past events for me is the story of not showing up to the meeting that was set up for me to try to understand why I did not show up for school. I carried this with me for decades, always wishing I could apologize to my two teachers, Mark Tympani and Ron Dobbs.
Now, I’m smart enough to know that brewing over past events is senseless, so after thirty years of senseless brewing, I decided to take action. About seven years ago, I contacted the school and inquired about Mark and Ron. I found out that Mark had passed away very young from cancer. He leaves behind a legacy of sport, fitness, love of nature, love of family, love of teaching, and pure love of life. Seriously, his is a story full of grace that needs to be told. I may need to take up this challenge one day.
With help from the school, I was able to connect with Ron Dobbs, now retired and still living in the area. As you may recall, Ron was the guidance counselor who took an interest in me and tried his best to help me through whatever it was I was going through. A few emails led to a lunch while I was in Canada one summer and we continue to stay in touch.
The lunch was big and very interesting for me from a perspective of story, of narrative, of how we frame the events of our lives. After I apologized to Ron for the meeting no-show, he laughed and said, “Robert, I sure hope you have not been worrying about this for thirty-some years!” I squirmed in my chair for a bit and lied, “of course not.” He saw that I was lying and then said, “Robert, you were a good kid, a smart kid. You simply were not wired to be sitting in a class room.” I was left speechless. His story, his narrative, his framing was not what I had imagined. It was nothing like I had assumed he felt about me, my truancy, or the no-show for the session on sorting out the art of the no-show. That lunch with Ron was a pivot point, a lesson learned, a redirection on how to see, feel, and think about my life, my story, my own narrative. I learned that I have choices; I can choose how to frame my personal stories.
Why do we worry so much? Life’s events are what they are and everything is a learning opportunity. Are we not the aggregate of all our life’s experiences? Recognizing that I am so grateful for my life as it is today, should I not be thankful for each and every experience along the way – the perceived good and perceived bad?
I suspect the answer to this question has different narratives based on whether or not we think we may have hurt somebody and need to make amends. Either way, I think it is safe to say that just because you have framed a particular event in a particular way, this does not mean that others have the same perception.
As a wise man once said to me, “Robert, two people can go into the same movie and walk out having watched a completely different story.”
Quick closing point, with the help of Ron and Rideau High School, we were able to set up an annual bursary for graduates in the name of Mark Tympani and Ron Dobbs. So, in the end, reflection on my personal no-show story allowed me, and others, to celebrate two teachers who truly made a difference.
Last closing point, when my oldest daughter Emilee was in the third grade, I bullied my way into her classroom, and to her complete embarrassment, I read from “Where the Red Fern Grows”. Now, ten years later, she recalls the story with a smile as she reminds me that not only did I read from the novel, but I did ‘character voices’ and got ‘choked up’ when I read a certain part of the story.
This is the good stuff.
Take time, friends.