On Lessons Learned

Nineteen sixty-eight was a big year for me. I graduated from college, married my sweetheart, and accepted a position to teach speech, drama, and English at Kelso High School. At twenty-one, I was so dewy-eyed I couldn’t leave class without a hall pass—portending why I bonded so readily with my students.

A half century later, I shared a barbeque dinner with three of my former scholars: Pat, Mike, and Hud. As stars salted the firmament, our conversation drifted to more serious subjects.

“It’s been fifty years since you graduated from high school,” I said. “When you think about your experiences and what is yet to come, what lessons would you offer your classmates?”

It was a heavy-duty question, which is my style. I can only tolerate so much blather about Seattle Seahawks, physical decline, and grandbabies destined for fame and fortune. I’m intrigued by existential insights, which is not everyone’s groove.

The boys squirmed, then, out of loyalty or common courtesy, began to unwind.

Hud, who is the director of a recovery center for those struggling with addiction or mental malaise, broke the ice. “Take nothing for granted,” he said. “I lost my Fran three years ago. Her death was so sudden and unexpected, I’m still shaken. And when I left that awful morning for work, I’m not sure I told her I loved her. That still haunts me.” He paused. “Never underprize the people you love.”

After we all took a long breath, I turned to Pat, a former wrestling and football coach. In gridiron fashion, he said, “Never give up. Keep growing, keep learning, keep paying back.”

We nodded in agreement.

I then looked to Mike, the funniest man I know, a taste of which can be found in his semi-autobiographical novel. His career highlight was counseling high school seniors and garnering well over a million dollars in scholarships for the young men and women he loved. “Find your passion,” he said.

It was my turn. “The more we observe the more we see; the more we listen, the more we hear. And when we do—when we truly see and listen—we expand our treasury of empathy and compassion.”

I saw Hud rock in approval.

“It’s like this,” I continued. “When we listen and observe wholeheartedly, we come to know the other, not as a director, a coach, or a counselor, but as a human being with both vices and virtues. We throw off judgment in favor of understanding. Only then we become kindred spirits—where class, import, and one-upmanship vanish.”

The conversation continued late into the night: an evening rife with laughter, goodwill, and love for one another—and, invariably, one more round of stories about crackerjack grandchildren.

THE IMAGE: The next morning, Pat and I cycled twenty-two miles from Issaquah to Bothell and back along a bucolic bike trail that followed the Sammamish River. It was a glorious day. At one point, we spotted a blue heron fishing on the opposite river bank. I quickly reached for my camera and eased forward, knowing the wading bird would eventually take flight. When he did, Pat shouted, “Get him!” And I did. You’ll find him in the lower left corner of the image.

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