By Terry Plotkin
Monumental, life-changing decisions and events occur often with barely any thought going into it.
When I was 5 years old, my parents chose to enroll me in the first grade ahead of schedule, making me the youngest kid in the school. In their haste to get me started, they skipped kindergarten altogether. They did not make this decision because I was precocious or emotionally or physically mature. They made it because my brother, who is 11 months younger than me, would end up in the same grade as me and that would somehow be bad for us. I never have figured out why that would necessarily be true. Regardless, their decision did not work for me although they never knew it. I was the third out of four boys that my mother had in five years. There was not much of a possibility that they had the time to pay attention to the ramifications of their choice. The results? I was put in the bottom reading group, had no friends, and was scared every day. In short, I wasn’t ready.
Fast forward to 7th grade. I knew myself to be a fairly smart kid, but somehow the school missed the memo and sent me, still the youngest kid in the class, to a division that was tracked not to go to college. In my town that meant you were destined to work in one of the local factories. My parents seemed unfazed by this. They did not check in with me or the school about what might be best for me. I am sure they, like the school administrators, had a lot going on. For my part, I knew I wanted to go to college, not because I was desirous of an education, but was looking for a ticket out of town. The low division placed me with students who seemed to like to bully, which led to me to hate school, again with no social life. Nonetheless, I managed to get steadily improving grades despite my unhappiness and gradually, over four years, moved up to the top division and went to college. I even made some friends. Hallelujah.
I had no control over the decisions that were made. In my estimation, the elders’ – my parents’ and school administrators’ – judgments failed me. I would not choose this path for myself if I had it to do over again. It was not a good way to go through school. It definitely changed my life. Yet overcoming adversity made me the person I am, and that perhaps pivoted me in a good direction. Yahhhh maybe.
On to college, a place I loved, at least the social part, but from an academic point of view I had no idea why I was there. I reached my junior year and still didn’t have a major. My brother encouraged me to try some courses and find a major before it was too late. I took an economics class at his suggestion. It turned out that the professor was one of the very few Marxist economists in the country. He was brilliant. I loved his class. He explained the assumptions behind the capitalist system and for the first time in my life someone addressed the question as to why things are the way they are. It turns out why is a fairly radical notion that was taboo for most of my so-called education. I learned to critically think about how the world functions, who I was in relationship to it, and what my options were. That professor changed the direction of my life. Strange that happened because, given the big size of the class, he had no idea of my existence.
I never chose a career. I did work various jobs that never
touched my identity. I was well into my forties before a suggestion from a few friends changed my fortune. The school where my children went started an after-school program and the parents were desperate to find someone who had the time and inclination to help run it. A friend asked me, and since it fit into my schedule and gave me a chance to be a part of my kids’ school, I said yes. I never had much interest in working with children until then. It was fine enough.
Two years later another friend told me in passing that a new small private school was opening up in my town in a few weeks and they might need someone to teach physical education. I had never heard of this school, but on a whim, went in there and talked to the administrators about a sports program. They were so busy setting up the school that they hadn’t given sports a thought, thanked me for coming, and said good-bye. The day before the school was to open they called me and asked me if I could take on the physical education and sports program. I asked them if they had a field? “No.” they replied. Equipment? “No.” A gym? “No.” A concept of how to run it? “No.” A soccer schedule? “No.” OK, I said, I’ll take it. That school failed after two years because of money problems. The same people opened a charter school soon thereafter, and I have run the sports program there for 15 years.
Voila, an off-hand suggestion from a friend pursued on a whim somehow was parlayed into a career.
So there you have it: Little decisions, without much forethought, having enormous consequences. The timeline of history is really no line at all. Life can pivot suddenly in a new direction without a plan attached to it. If there is any lesson in this I would say: Pay good attention to the moment at hand.