Look Simba, everything the light touches is our kingdom. A king’s time as ruler rises and falls like the sun. One day Simba, the sun will set on my time here and will rise with you as the new king.
~ Mufasa (James Earl Jones) in The Lion King (1994)
NEARLY THREE SATURDAYS AGO, my usual wave of anticipation suddenly turned into remorse as I glanced across a single line on a teacher’s Facebook page (and website): Final Column. Jaime Richards, the teacher whom I’ve patterned my own columns after and his lessons as a major source of inspiration and motivation, was officially succumbing to his own inner depression. He was giving up on his own motivations, the reasons why he has been teaching What It Takes for over 26 years and counting.
I’ve been benched.
After 12 years and 500-plus columns, this one’s my last. I’m disappointed — but not surprised.
It’s no secret that the Internet has wounded print newspapers. For several years now, the writing has been on the wall. Make that on the screen.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The original goal was to syndicate this column. To take it national — and beyond — like my Uncle Art (Buchwald) had. The point of the Prayer of Jabez is to “enlarge my border,” to have a growing influence — not a shrinking one.
The dream is to affect the world. Not spectacularly. That’s not realistic. Just with the kinds of things I’ve written about here: What it takes to live well. What it takes to be successful. What it takes to be extraordinary.
I know about these things, but not because I’m brilliant or wise. And certainly not because I’m living especially well, successfully or extraordinarily. But because, for more than a quarter-century, I’ve studied great lives.
It started when I began wondering about my best all-around students. I wanted to know why they were so successful, kind, admired, well-liked and happy. I wanted to know why they were that way so I could teach my two daughters how to live magnificent lives, and so I could share “what it takes” with all my students.
My heart kept sinking as I continued to glance through the rest of the column, but even I have come to understand why Jaime started to lose some of his charisma and his enthusiasm.
He started to stop believing in himself, in his own abilities to ‘change the world’, one student at a time, because, as he says, it isn’t realistically possible. Or is it?
Even I would assume, as one of his former students, that if you could spend over 26+ years teaching a life philosophy about what makes ordinary people extra-ordinary in their talents and abilities and trying so hard to put their best foot forward in a world that’s already so manipulative, corrupt and commercialized, why would you ever stop now?
Because one lesson (and its corresponding column) that Jaime once lectured and wrote about was along the lines of “how to be a number two kind of person.”
This truth hit me like a shot to the gut while watching Heart of the Sea, a documentary film about the life of Hawaiian surfer and social activist Rell Sun (Rell Sunn). Rell, one of the original professional women surfers, opened opportunities and created international interest in women’s surfing.
She established a surfing competition—really more of a celebration than a competition—for children in her hometown of Makaha, O’ahu. But she didn’t just surf. She was an extraordinary free diver, hula dancer and outrigger canoe racer. She was a local legend, admired and adored by everyone who knew her.
Tragically, she didn’t live a long life. She died of cancer when she was only 46. Rell was first diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 33. Amazingly, she fought it for 14 years.
During that period, she lived beautifully….The impact she had on those who knew her was immense.
Which isn’t true for most people. I’ve thought about it and decided that she lived a No. 2 life. A life, upon its completion, can be loosely ranked from 1 to 5.
Most people live a No. 3 life. Nothing about it is especially bad—or especially good. When they’re done, except for a few family members and friends, they aren’t missed. It’s like they weren’t even here.
But we are all capable of living a No. 2—a Rell Sun kind of life. We’re all capable—if motivated—of rising above an ordinary No. 3 by building a life that’s special, meaningful, and memorable.
~ Jaime Richards, an excerpt from The Five Kinds of Lives (pg. 233 – 234), in his book What It Takes (2006)
Here, Jaime’s words have struck me immensely and have moved me so to consider living a Number 2 kind of life. At the same time though, I know there are many times when we all, at some point or another, feel that our actions and our motives are hypocritical—that we can’t possibly live a Number 2 life because we keep messing up time and time again, spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically.
But here’s something I have come to learn from the great figures of history—Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa and many others: the human condition is full of actually learning to make mistakes, because in a wry, ironic sense, mistakes are meant to be made. Making them allows us to grow and develop, in all virtuous aspects, as human beings.
Sure, we can all feel guilty and shameful of making mistakes, no doubt about that—but the point is—is that in making them, we learn to persevere. Nobody has to teach us how to persevere through our obstacles and challenges. It gradually becomes an instinct to do so.
We learn to break through our physical, psychological and spiritual barriers to show others what we are capable of doing. That is the lesson we can all learn from Rell Sunn and how she mustered up her strength to battle her breast cancer by choosing to surf and teaching others how to surf as well, and in doing so, she touched the lives of many.
Bethany Hamilton, Michael Jordan and Roger Bannister also all come to mind when we need to look at the noble people who are impacting others in these virtuous ways.
This is what, I also humbly believe, a man like Jaime Richards, should continuously strive to do as a high school teacher and as a writer. He may think he is at a humble and lowly position now, but there is one verse of Scripture that always comes to my mind when an issue of lowliness is addressed at heart:
So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called but few chosen.
~ Matthew 20:16 (KJV)
It’s a paradoxical statement, but Jesus was trying to send a message to 1st-century Galileans that He isn’t just a teacher, a preacher—or even a carpenter’s son for that matter—He came so that He may serve others, and that others serve Him.
Wherever we seem to come from—our ethnicities, our family backgrounds, our social classes—that all shouldn’t have to matter. Why? Simply because I believe wherever we are placed in life, we should start from that position and work our way up the ladder. That’s what Christ called common people to do.
THOMAS FRIEDMAN, in his Oct. 9 column, wrote:
“America, while often paralyzed from the top down, is alive from the bottom up. The more I travel around our country, the more I meet people who didn’t get the word — that we’re supposed to be depressed and on our backs — and they’re out experimenting with education, innovating with technology and using the Web for startups. But our political system is not empowering, enhancing and inspiring their efforts at the speed and scale that we need.”
Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, is a genius. I make my students read him. At least one of them thinks he should be president. I don’t disagree.
Even when he isn’t writing about education, what he says is relevant to school. What he wrote about being “paralyzed from the top down,” but “alive from the bottom up” is something we teachers regularly see and frequently experience.
Kids can do so much more than we think they can. We lose and they fail when we don’t expect greatness from them. The truth is, they’re better than us.
~ Jaime Richards, an excerpt from Motivation from the Bottom Up (2010)
In the eyes of a teacher, they are viewed as leaders, and yet, strangely enough, they are also servants. They serve their students, and very rarely, there are times when students serve their teachers. This isn’t just seen as a sign of respect, but also gratitude, and this appeals as a universal concept across all human cultures—when teachers and students alike foster real authority.
This is why, as I have said in my previous columns, I can respect Jaime for being a Keating figure in my life—because Keating didn’t just sit around and wait for his students to be spoon-fed information from the book, and neither did Jesus or Gandhi—they all actively interacted with their students, with real-life people.
These men taught people to think for themselves—their own personal interpretations of the book, and more importantly, of the greatness of life.
But the hardest part in all of this is having the strength to keep going.
Mortally wounded by an assassin’s bullet, the great politician Huey Long’s last words were, “God, don’t let me die. I have so much left to do.”
I’m not dying, but I feel like Long did. I have so much left to do.
I’m almost done with my third book, “Missing Pieces. Vital Lessons Our Schools Don’t Teach.” And you can still find me at my website, what-it-takes.com.
I’m still around. Don’t forget about me.
~ Jaime Richards, an excerpt from Final Column (2011).
Don’t worry Jaime. I know you still have a lot to do, believe me, I continuously believe and support you too, and the people that know you the best won’t ever forget you.
That’s why you will always have a spot in my Inspirational People List (and yes, my list is still expanding every single day).
I believe your legacy won’t stop with your columns, but you are indeed moving on into new territory—and as the baton is being passed on from you to me, I sincerely accept and take after your beliefs and values very well.
Though I may also experience discouraging events and situations in my life, and may succumb to them as well, you have truly instilled your beliefs in me, as I carry them onwards into my college years. And so they remain my motivation and my continuous passion to keep living and to keep writing.
Moreover, this young protégé is proud to be a successor in the line of great writers in history.
For if not anyone else, I will be one among the few determined to carry on a legacy, and thank you ever so much for everything that you taught me.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
~ Henry David Thoreau, an excerpt from Walden (1854)
I want to stop merely existing. I want to start living, and to “live deliberately” as Thoreau wrote. That’s the main point here.
Enough said, and until next time.
~ A Fellow Columnist, Josh Chen.