It was Module 3 in Human Development, six years ago. As I continued reading The Learning Lotus (“A seed does not need to be taught how to grow.”). I knew that I had something special here. Academically it was very well written and appropriately documented. From a literary perspective, it was impressive. An enjoyable read. But it was the creativity tied to a good understanding of learning theory that distracted me. I was no longer “grading” an assignment. I was captivated. I read the paper a few more times. By the time I had finished grading all twenty or more assignments, I had moved on. I was back on task. As the term progressed I found myself looking forward to this particular student’s written assignments because each was unique. One would be a well written academic paper demonstrating a good understanding of the course material while also making for an impressive and enjoyable read. The next assignment would read like a well written story, an entry into a personal diary, also demonstrating an understanding of the course material as a way to make sense of the writer’s own personal experience. I felt as though I was reading an openly introspective and insightful autobiography written by a well-read behavioral scholar. Of course, there were also those papers in which this student chose to challenge the position established by the theorist under study, providing examples from personal experience or belief that contradicted the required reading. In short, I had a unique and talented student here. A good writer. A good thinker. A complex individual who wanted to learn and succeed, but on her own terms. Throughout the semester I came to know this A+ student as a person. A talented person. An open person who was willing to challenge the “experts”, as well as the “system.” It wasn’t about the grade. It was about learning and growing.
Somewhere along the line, somewhat after the fact, I came to realize that I was going to miss you after the semester had concluded. This was not an unusual experience for me but, in your case, it was more about a sense of truly knowing someone I had never met. Although I consider myself to be a pretty good psychologist, I still recognize that I cannot read minds. It was a pleasant surprise for me when you contacted me with some questions you had about a possible career in the same field as mine. At the very least, I knew that this was not an attempt to “kiss ass for a grade”. You already knew that was unnecessary. At some level there was trust here. You had already told me about yourself and apparently felt as though you could trust my opinions and advice. What I didn’t know at the time was the fact that, no matter what my advice would be, you weren’t looking for direction. You wanted information. This series of exchanges was enjoyable for me because the semester with you hadn’t ended my involvement in your career decisions. Better yet, this open book of a student was inviting me to contribute to her next chapter. I am unable to specify the point at which my world shifted from student to friend, but here’s where I could easily turn this letter into a book, my book. Instead, I had best stick with my original purpose…
As a way of wishing you all the best on your way up the mountain, I wanted to share with you my recollection of having met you in order to get to this point. I’m not a believer in Kismet, but this experience has made me wonder. Now that we are “family” and “grading” is a matter of the distant past, I feel a strong sense of gratitude in being able to climb that mountain with you. My fondest wish would be to give you a hug at the summit. That may come to pass. I certainly hope so. Sadly, my reality also recognizes that the years separating us may require me to leave your journey at one of the base camps. I will continue on in spirit beyond the point when you “retire” from your rural practice in clinical psychology. Perhaps Kismet will allow me to connect with you again, somewhere in the cosmos.
But for now, my purpose is to let you know how confident I am of your success in West Virginia. As has been true of your entire life, I am fully aware that your internship will not be free from challenges. I’m also aware that you would not want that. For you, the absence of challenge means a lack of opportunity, learning and accomplishment. Just as with your semester in my class, I know in my heart that your year away from home is not about a grade or a certificate. It is about the next mountain.
I treasure your friendship and am genuinely thankful for the opportunity to accompany you on this part of your journey, beginning with my having noticed something special about Module 3 in Human Development.
We recently discussed eulogies… how those words should be shared prior to the funeral. Perhaps you and I have both been to enough funerals to really understand this. However I understand, as I’m sure you do as well, that not everyone receives the opportunity to say what needs to be said…
A few years ago I promised to write you a letter of what you meant to me. You have waited more than patiently, though you have reminded me on more than one occasion. I did what I do – I took my own time, made it on my terms, and waited for the time to be right in me. I suppose you always knew I would do so. You know me well.
For one, I needed a break from dissertation writing. But as I took this break, I wanted it to be meaningful. I reflected on where I’ve been and where I’m going. You are a contributing factor to where I am. The whole idea of me writing a dissertation still blows me away. I know, hands down, without a doubt, that you are a major encourager in that arena.
Your birthday is also tomorrow… I missed a few that I tried to write this previously. It never flowed so I walked away. I am and always have been about the flow.
Tonight it flows. So here goes…
Seven years ago I enrolled in SUNY Empire to complete my Bachelor’s degree. It was distance learning and I felt it fit with my life at that time. I took Human Development my very first semester. I had recently been restructured out of job, which was a nice way of saying I was let go of. I was feeling a little spunky, but perhaps, that is just part of my personality. I remember looking over the syllabus of Human Development and getting excited. It was not only learning about others developing through life, but also a serious reflection of ourselves. I never anticipated this and it wasn’t always easy, but I dove in. I took a hold of the reins and sometimes pushed boundaries. I used words that didn’t always fit into academic jargon. I wrote with my heart mixed with theory. I tried to make sense of what I was supposed to be learning. I am an experiential learner and had to fit this into what I experienced in some way – observation, engagement in my own life, etc. I’m sure it read for some interesting reads along the way. I’m also sure that the anonymity of distance learning contributed to this freedom. Distance learning has its pros and cons, but that is outside the scope of this note.
What first intrigued me was your feedback to my papers. You asked questions that created deep reflection of thought along with pointing out grammar mistakes. I found it a good balance. I have had a small number of teachers along my path that allowed me to think for myself and actually promoted this – you were one.
I boxed you up in my head into the “good teachers” box in my brain. And then… I was about to graduate a few years later. I was wracking my brain trying to figure out my next move. I knew I wanted more than a “human services” degree or job. I knew I wanted a private practice one day. I wasn’t sure of my options. I remembered that you were adjunct faculty with a private practice as a psychologist. I sent you an email requesting information about the field and options that were available. Initially, what struck me most was your willingness to offer what you knew. What began as a three hour phone consultation about the different avenues I could take, what each would entail etc., later evolved into the most unlikely of friendships.
I remember one conversation when I exclaimed that a doctorate in psychology required an additional statistics class. I nearly didn’t apply for graduate school based on that premise alone. In that moment, you grounded me more than you know. You rationalized and validated my fears, but also challenged me stating, “Do not let stats alone stop you.”
While I still believe it was the grace of God that got me in ‘A’ in stats in graduate school, I would never have applied had you not challenged me way back when. For that, I cannot thank you enough.
As I read your letter the first time, I cried. It felt like a goodbye letter. I read it to Aaron. He also cried. It was a hard one.
Sometimes I get mad at the irony that I met you at the winter stage of your life. And yet, I will always be forever grateful that you grew from a teacher, to a friend, to family within my life. In that perspective, it is better to have than to never have experienced.
We never had a ‘lifetime’ of friendship, but we were granted a season. I know after many conversations that our relationship has always been reciprocal –it was a prerequisite from the get-go. No masks. No beating around the bush. Thank you for always being real. Neither one of us have time for superficiality, nor do we enjoy it or have time for it. I will always cherish the season that you were part of my life.
There was one person that truly believed in my abilities prior to you that I remember fondly. My principal when I graduated high school. She wrote me a letter of recommendation to her Alma mater and after lengthy talks, an exploration of what I wanted, I applied for elementary education. I never quite made it through that journey and after a few weeks of class and learning the process that I didn’t quite agree with, I lost all motivation and drive. I assume you also understand this was just a contributing factor to a complexity of issues of a small town girl trying to get out of dodge and know something else.
Fast forward many years later…
I thank God for letting our paths cross. I don’t know why or how. I don’t care how or why. I just know you matter.
I think back to our many conversations about grace – what it means, how to encapsulate the meaning. I probably never quite did a great job at conveying that for you.
We will continue that conversation until it makes sense. I pray that one day it will resonate with your heart and you will truly understand for yourself and also understand how difficult it is to put into words. Until then, we will have many bonfires attempting to describe.
Thank you for always being real. For meeting me wherever I was. For always being honest. For challenging and encouraging me. For believing in me. For being a true friend. For being the true meaning of family. For the many conversations and the fellowship we had along the way. For all that you are…
I hope more than anything that you will be there when I cross that stage. And I dream about a practice with you – we would’ve made a dynamic team. However, if you cross that great divide before I get there I want you to know I am a witness to your life and all that you are. I will not forget you. I am so grateful for the presence of you in my life. You brought me to this stage – whether you’re there or not. Your encouragement and challenging me pushed me onward. Thank you for also staying the course.
I love you David. You will always hold a special place in my heart.
Happy 80th Birthday!
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