When I was preparing to leave the United States for two years to teach English in Central Asia as a Peace Corps volunteer, one thing my recruiter suggested I do to prepare myself for the technical skills involved with teaching was to become a certified Minnesota Literacy Council tutor and then volunteer at one of the many local English schools within the Twin Cities area. So I did, splitting my time between adult language learners at the Lao Family English School in St. Paul and the L.E.A.P. English Academy in Frog Town (now known as LEAP High School). Both were extremely rewarding experiences, but it was teaching adults at the Lao Family English School (which was open to all English learners but just happened to be named after the large number of Lao students that came through its doors) that I met a shining example of what it means to start over as an adult.
One of my students was a middle-aged man from an African nation I cannot recall. Looking back on it all, one can’t help but admire him for enrolling in these classes as the only African male in a class dominated by Lao and Hmong immigrants, mostly female. But oh my Lord, he was a voracious learner for not only was he learning to speak and comprehend English as an older adult, he was also learning how to read and write in a language that was not his own.
One day my fellow teachers and I took the students to the Minnesota Science Museum. It’s a great museum for students of all ages and levels because it is extremely interactive, yet combines many opportunities to read. While all the students seemed to enjoy the experience, this man in particular said one thing that I have never forgotten as even to this day, it makes me a little misty-eyed. I overhead him say to one of the teachers, “As soon as I improve my reading skills, I’m going to come back here on my own and take my time to read everything in this museum, and try everything that is here!”
I was a 22-year old college senior at the time. What did I know about having to learn how to speak, read and write in a new language, muchness learn how to live in a new country, especially as an adult? What did I know about the vulnerable feeling that comes with such an experience? (Although I soon found out during my Peace Corps service!) Here was this man, older than his classmates, of another ethnicity and culture different from everyone else, including his teachers, and yet embracing the learning experience with his whole heart, mind and spirit—no visible inhibitions! He made it seem so easy and fun, although I can only imagine it was not like this for him everyday.
Anyway, I’ve thought of this student recently as I have realized that over the years that I too, have begun to “try everything,” ticking off experiences from my bucket list starting from my early 20s (backpacking through South Africa, joining the Peace Corps and living overseas) and continuing to this day (visiting the Grand Canyon and volunteering as a poll worker during this year’s presidential election). Although those are the fun things I have chosen to do. There have been situations where I have had no choice but to “try everything” in order to survive, much like my former student.
For example, during the 2008 recession, I spent more than a year unemployed, desperately looking for work. This forced me to “try everything,” including things I was afraid of doing, such as networking with strangers and starting an entry-level job at the age of 33. I learned some valuable lessons from that humbling experience. Perhaps it was sort of like that for my former student.
I have noticed though, that I continue to voluntarily and involuntarily experience new things. And now that I am older and more experienced, I appreciate much more the situation my student was going through, as well as the opportunities that are before me. Sometimes I have a choice: I can try everything—even the difficult things—or I can refrain but stop growing. Even though it sounds like an easy choice, it isn’t always. And sometimes I have made the wrong decision.
But with perhaps one or two exceptions to that philosophy (which I will save for another blog post), I feel I have best lived my life according to Cameron Diaz who once said, “Your regrets aren’t what you did but what you didn’t do, so I take every opportunity.” I only pray that like my student almost twenty years ago, I will never let age drain this spirit from me for that will be the day I truly die.