Editor's note -- This column was originally published in the Aug. 31, 2014 edition of The Times and Democrat.
I had the opportunity to teach several classes on our campus, classes that focus on setting a course for your life, learning organizational skills, developing a purpose in life and establishing core values. I was there to demonstrate how students can find specific resources online and through the college’s electronic databases that will assist them in these tasks.
As usual, these classes tend to bring out the storyteller in me — relating personal stories to demonstrate that all successful people learn to do the very things these students are learning. As we have large numbers of what are referred to as “non-traditional” students, one of the stories I share is the decision I made to return to college at age 34 to pursue a master’s degree.
I tell them, “I finally realized, at 34, what I wanted to be when I grew up.” This usually generates a little laughter from the class, but it also helps them know that not every person who “looks” successful always had “it” together — that most people travel different pathways to get where they finally end up, doing what they enjoy, and enjoying what they do.
I also challenge the students in these classes to seriously consider the “dash” in their lives. Each student has a personal identification number, which is two sets of numbers separated by a dash. The dash is important and must be included when students want to access electronic resources when they are off campus.
From this concrete example, I write on the board “1955-2055.” I tell them if I live to be 100, these dates will be on my gravestone. The question then follows, “What is the most important part of what you see on the board?”
They take several attempts to answer until one of them finally says, “the dash.” But I don’t leave it there with the right answer; I follow up with that age-old question, “Why?” That’s when they have to think, and that’s when they have to dig deep to discover what the dash in their life span means and why it is so important.
When they come close to the concept, I take it from there and explain that the dash is symbolic of what they do with their life while they are on this earth. I ask them when George Washington was born. No one knows. I ask them when Martin Luther King Jr. was born. No one knows. I ask them why these men were important, and they know.
Building on my example, one of the teachers whose class I taught followed up by giving her students an assignment for their required journals.
“Write down in your journal your birth year. Then write a dash. Then put today’s date excluding the year,” she instructed them. “And for your journal assignment, I want you to think about what people would say about you if your life ended on Aug. 26 of any given year. Then I want you to record those thoughts in your journal.”
I wish you could have seen the looks on those students’ faces. There were looks of anxiety and uncertainty. The younger, more traditional students have probably never considered that they are going to die. The older, non-traditional students appeared to have a better understanding but still looked pensive.
What a great assignment. What a great teaching and learning opportunity.
Have you considered your dash lately? What will they say about you?