I read a post from Heather Cox Richardson this morning in which she told the story of Frederick Douglass’ escape to freedom. She described how Mr. Douglass had been bought and sold by a number of slave owners, sometimes somewhat kind and sometimes almost murderously brutal. At the time of his attempt to head north to a life of his own choosing he had a job that was perhaps easier than those of most slaves but he was still the property of someone and subject to the whims of his master. At any moment he might have been sold down the river to a life of working in the fields or worse. He fully understood the consequences of attempting to run away in pursuit of freedom but the lure of being his own man outweighed his fears. He stepped on a train with forged papers and headed north. The rest, of course, is history.
In some ways each of us face moments of truth in which we must decide to take enormous risks. Most of our decisions are not nearly as serious as the possibilities that Douglass faced nor are the consequences of failure. Nonetheless we find ourselves hesitant to change the direction of our lives rather than continue to follow familiar routines that are crushing our souls. It is a normal reaction to stay with the status quo rather than wander into the unknown.
My own journey through life, even though often difficult, was never once as horrific as that of Frederick Douglass who was born a slave. My crossroads were never life threatening but they were life changing. I had to decide who I wanted to be, what I thought my true purpose was. Many well meaning people had ideas of how they thought my life should unfold but I sometimes felt sick at the thought of following their advice. I understood that I had the capability of being a doctor or an engineer but those careers did not hold interest for me even as those who loved me insisted that I should consider them. I instead wanted to be a teacher, a role that I had played even as a child. When I thought of educating others I felt excited even as I realized that such a job would not bring me the kind of status or income that being a lawyer or business woman would. I knew that I might be anything that I wished, but I only wished in my heart to be a teacher and the people around me saw that as settling for something less than I had the potential to be. I became so confused that I dropped out of college and took time to think things through. I disappointed many who had worked hard to provide me with opportunities that I appeared to be throwing away.
While I was deciding which direction to pursue I had to work and the jobs I accepted should have told me what I really wanted to do. I accepted a position in a daycare center watching over little ones in an after school program. I landed a spot as a pre-school teacher that made me so happy that I still smile when I think of my time there. The leaders at my church asked me to be a director of religious education for children from age three through age five and I pioneered the transition from nuns to lay people. I watched five children in my home while their mothers worked. The hints of what I really wanted to do were loud and clear but I continued to worry that those urging me to do something more exciting and lucrative were right and so I was thirty years old before I re-enrolled in college and chose education as my major.
By then I was no longer afraid. I let the advice and concerns that I was throwing away my abilities and talents whoosh right over my head. I threw myself into my classes with abandon and joy. I stepped on my own train and never once looked back at what might have been. I found my own personal freedom in being the person that I felt I had been destined to be and never have I regretted my decision to follow my own heart and not the good intentions of others. Even as I knew I had disappointed them, I was true to myself.
I can honestly say that I went to work happy almost every single day of my career. Of course there were tense times when a new principal came into my world and I knew I had to find a different school because our philosophies did not mesh. I sometimes had students that I struggled to reach and grave feelings of failure when I knew I had not managed to help them. I was almost always exhausted as I worked sixty plus hours a week while also raising a family. When my salary was stagnant and I watched my peers in other fields rising to levels of great economic comfort I sometimes worried that I would never enjoy their status or monetary comforts. Still, no challenge tempted me to step away from being an educator. It was baked into my DNA.
In the last few years of my career a former principal recruited me to follow him to a public charter school, a place with longer hours, no protective contract, and a work ethic that was demanding. My final risk would be to accept his offer little knowing how much my choice would change my life. It was at KIPP Houston High School that I found my stride and truly realized the impact and importance of my lifetime of work with young students. I knew there that the true joy of my work was to be found in having a meaningful purpose, not a title or an impressive salary. I realized that one student at a time for decades I had made my mark on this world, sometimes in very small ways and sometimes in a manner that changed lives.
Our hearts tell us what we need to do. They cry out to us to be free to be ourselves. Sometimes they ask us to risk everything in pursuit of a way of life that nobody else will understand. There may be hardships and even danger in following our instincts but it is almost always worth the effort. It is freeing to be able to show the world who we really are. For Frederick Douglass it was a matter of life and death. For me it was of lesser consequence but still a life changing evolution of my soul. Each of us must find the courage to determine how we wish to live and then step on the train that takes us to where we were meant to be.