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Why Are You Here?

1. The Question

The room was dark. There were equations and graphs projected on the screen at the front. The students were just beginning to get settled back down from the fire drill.

“Mister,” one of the students asked, “why are you here?”

I forget why she asked that. 

“Why am I here?”

“Mister,” the boy behind her added, “high school students are jerks. Why do you want to teach us.”

I was beginning to get their drift.

“And mister,” a third student said. “Why did you give up a seven digit salary.”

“Ok,” I said. “Let’s be clear. It wasn’t seven digits.”

I did not elaborate. They did not ask further. I stood there and looked out in the dark room with them looking back at me, waiting for me to say something else.

I looked at the equations and graphs and then back at them, and then I shrugged, smiled and threw my hands in the air.

“Oh well,” I said. “It’s Friday!”

And in this way I began to explain why I am there.

2. The Answer

I told them about visiting a friend in college years ago. How I recklessly and pseudo-boastfully told him and his wife and some of their friends that I wasn’t sure what I was going to do after I got out of school — how I was thinking of the Peace Corps. 

They didn’t know what the Peace Corps is. I explained. And then I stopped and looked at my students.

“But I didn’t join the Peace Corps after all,” I said. “I got a job at NASA and later in tech. And at some point I began wondering what it was going to be like when to be 95 on my death bed wondering why I never joined the Peace Corps.”

That made them laugh — not the prospect of joining but rather the notion of being 95 and the notion of being on your death bed. But they laughed quietly, because they understood what I was saying, and because they wanted to know what came next.

I talked about meaning. How I wanted to have a job with real meaning. My explanation continued for a while, circling through tiny Walkerville, Michigan (which one of the students knows!) and my grandparents and how it’s so wonderful to work around young people. But eventually I stopped and said, “So here I am.”

A few of the students clapped.

“No… no…,” I said. “No clapping.”

I turned back toward the screen with the equations and the graphs.

“So. Where were we?”

It was a good Friday.