I often gave my students mini character lessons in between teaching them about linear equations and the quadratic formula. Among my tried and true suggestions was that they work hard when young so that they might enjoy a less stressful future. I’m not sure that many of them understood what I was attempting to tell them but a few here and there got the gist of my idea. I had learned that it is far easier to get the degrees and certifications necessary for marketable job skills when one is young, energetic and mostly free from major responsibilities than when older. As the years tick by and adult duties proliferate it becomes quite difficult, though not impossible, to change the trajectory of life caused by the choices made along the way. Hard lifting performed in one’s youth usually pays big dividends later in life. I suppose that when I waxed eloquently on such topics most of my students found refuge inside their own thoughts. I most likely sounded like the infamous teacher in the Peanuts films, sound and fury signifying nothing. Nonetheless I had benefited from my own experiences and I hoped to reach at least one soul with my mutterings.
I have generally found that those who build a firm foundation of knowledge, skills, good habits, and exemplary character when they are young adults tend to have the kind of lives that are often the envy of their peers. To some it may seem that they have been blessed with extraordinary luck but the reality is that they have been the masters of their own fates. My nephew-in-law is just such a person.
Andy had humble beginnings. He was born in Taiwan and when he was still a very young boy his father tragically died. His mother suddenly found herself in need of a way to earn a living for the two of them. She came to the United States to attend Lamar University in Beaumont. While she studied Andy lived with my brother and sister-in-law. There he learned English, went to school, and became a much loved member of our extended family. He and my daughters played as children and my girls often helped him to master English.
Andy thrived. He was always a good boy and he worked hard. Once his mother graduated and found a job in Houston he settled into a routine of doing his best at whatever he attempted. He understood all too well how difficult his mother’s life had been and he matured quickly. After graduating from high school he attended the University of Texas where he met Thuy, a young woman who had also known difficulties in her childhood. In fact, she and her parents were among the refugees from South Vietnam known as the Boat People.
Her father had been a professor of French and her mother was a business woman. Once they reached the United States their inability to speak the language well and their lack of current credentials forced them to take jobs far below their abilities. Still they worked hard for their children and instilled in them a sense of appreciation for the opportunities that were available to them in their new found country.
When Andy and Thuy met they realized that they shared many of the same dreams. Both of them wanted to become doctors and they focused on doing whatever it took to achieve their goals. Happily both were accepted to Southwestern Medical School in Dallas.
Their days and nights were filled with daunting challenges. They existed on few hours of sleep, grueling schedules and moments when it seemed unlikely that they would outlast the many demands being made on them. They watched peers drop out, too crushed by the requirements. Somehow they remained disciplined and took one step after another until one day they had earned their medical degrees. Knowing that they finally had a relatively secure future, they got married and began a life that would be filled with success, joy and love.
Today they are both highly respected physicians. Andy is a gastroenterologist and Thuy is an oncologist. They have earned the trappings of a good life. They have a home that might easily grace the pages of an architectural magazine. They have cars that catch sideways glances when they drive by. They take grand vacations to exotic places. They are happy and proud of their work. They have learned how to balance their careers with a robust family time. They admit that they have few economic worries. To all of the world they are two very lucky people but for those of us who know them there is the understanding that everything about their lives today resulted from incredible amounts of determination and effort back beginning when they were still adolescents.
This weekend Andy and Thuy hosted a birthday party for their son. It was of the sort that one might imagine a celebrity would have. Everything about it was spectacular and every guest had great fun. Their home was transformed into Hogwarts and little robe clad children took part in a sorting ceremony, a quidditch game and eagerly watched a magician. Toward the end of the event Thuy decided to share a bit of her wisdom with the children in attendance. She urged them to take advantage of their youth just as I had tried to do so many times with my students. She pointed out that the harder they worked now, the easier their lives might be as they grow older. I suspect that few of the children actually took her admonitions to heart but I felt like a kindred spirit as I listened to her mini-lesson.
Later she and I spoke of her attempt to enlighten the children. She had addressed them from the heart. She knows all too well what sometimes happens to people who fritter away their time and their talents. She has treated many patients who waited too long to seek her help simply because they did not have the insurance or the income to go to a doctor. By the time that they saw her their cases had become more complex than they needed to be. The same patients had to work multiple jobs just to stay afloat. Life was far more difficult and desperate than it might have been had they taken the time when they were younger to set goals and keep to them. She had seen first hand the pain and stress of those with lives left to chance.
I suppose that we will always have those among us who only dream but never follow through. It hurts those of us who are a bit farther down the road of life to see them choosing the easy way of doing things rather than accepting challenges that will ultimately give them many more choices and far more security and serenity. There are many ways to avoid living in a chronic state of worry because of a lack of marketable skills and it is certainly rarely too late to take charge of one’s life but it does indeed become more and more difficult to progress with each passing year.
If I were to provide one piece of advice to my former students and younger friends it would be to follow those dreams no matter how much endurance is required. Find ways to achieve your goals even if you do so very slowly. Never stop moving in the direction of the life that you want for yourself. Don’t ever give up. Keep doing one thing every single day until the golden snitch is in your hands. Believe in yourself and take those risks. Nobody ever got anywhere by sitting at home. Get out there and begin your journey.