A former student has a year to live. He knows this. His doctor, in no uncertain terms, laid out the facts for him. This student has one year, one year to complete his bucket list, to say goodbye to the wife and kids, to shop for those last minute gifts. He’s a young guy, younger than I am, maybe a good ten years younger. He’s going back to school because it’s something he’s always wanted to do. He’s going back, at least, for one year.
I share this not to be crass or flippant, but to make real a very uncomfortable topic. Dare I use the word? Yes. We all die. And, unless we’re talking suicide here (which, let’s not) not one of us has much of a choice in when that death happens. Sure, we can eat our sprouts and take spinning classes like they’re candy, but we don’t get to choose the day we die. And normally, this is where I hit home with my lectures. I teach development, human growth and decline from conception to death. Death is not a difficult topic for me to approach. It’s part of the class. I am very comfortable discussing it, very comfortable, that is, from an analytical point of view. I like to impress upon my students that development happens. Development happens, whether we do anything about it or not, from the moment we’re conceived until the day that we die. The goal is positive development. It’s not just how LONG we live, but how WELL we live. I could go on, but when this student shared his news with me, I suddenly fell from my status as instructor and assumed that of student.
I should share that he made me aware of his news when we were going over his end of term project, an assignment which now seemed embarrassingly insignificant. I am very proud of this project and have had great feedback from students. I have them take a few psychological assessments, which will reveal to them their strengths, what they are great at, what they do best. I have guest lecturers come in and discuss the history and purpose of the assessments and give a good explanation of what specifically all of it means to the students themselves. We have great fun with this. It is always an eye opener to see that Hey, I actually don’t totally suck as much as I thought I did. As it turns out, I am pretty good at more than a few things. And, if I choose, I can do something with that to benefit both myself and others. I have them focus on how they might fit these strengths into their future career, family, volunteer experience and life in general. I have them discuss with me how these findings might help them fine-tune their efforts. THEN, and this is where the embarrassingly insignificant part comes in, THEN I have them discuss what impact focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses has on health and well-being. I want to hear from them that focusing on strengths increases our levels of happiness, that happiness has been shown to reduce the risk of stress and depression. I want to hear that people who are happier are healthier, get sick less often, are more creative and productive at work and, well, they live longer. Except now this student is standing before me with cancer in his body, and no matter what grade he receives or how well he knows the material, none of it really applies.
I want a do-over.
I have a different project for this young man. Forget the assessments. Forget the guest lecturers. Forget the career plans or the focus on health and well-being. Forget all of that. What I want to know is this. What does it feel like to know that you’re dying? We all know, of course, that we will die. But while we know it, we never really believe it. What does it feel like to have a deadline for that? What lessons do you have for me on living my life? Am I doing it right? Should I be more serious? Have more fun? Am I nice enough? What about the whole family versus work thing? How do I know if I have that down as I should? Would you have done anything differently? Is there anything you wouldn’t have done? How does it feel to know that your children will grow up without you? That they, depending on their ages, may not remember you at all? No. Wait. Don’t answer that one. What life lessons would you most want to impress upon them and how would you make sure they got those lessons? If you could do it all again, it being life as you lived it, would you do it the same?
Most importantly, as this student of mine stands before me, what I most want to ask is this. Grade me. How am I doing as a person? I am trying really hard to make a difference in the lives of others. I am trying really hard to give and love and encourage. Am I doing that? Have I impacted your world at all? Do you see that I am impacting others? Where am I great? Where do I need more work? If you could change me, what would you change? What do you like about who I am? What do you not like? Be honest with me. Be honest because I trust that you know, that you are suddenly wise like that and that you are not afraid to say because you have nothing to risk. Be honest because I am watching and learning. I am learning about this business of dying, and I am thinking that I was wrong, that it starts not with a diagnosis but with the first breath of life itself. I want to tell this student of mine that he is my model, my example, and that his word matters to me. I want to tell him that he is MY teacher. HE is MINE.