Ever have that feeling of too many coincidences? As though life is trying to teach you a lesson, and the same question comes up over and over again until you learn it? This has happened to me this past month; time and time again, the question “what really counts?” keeps rearing its head.
It started with an incident in my teenager’s English class. He gave an oral presentation about a historical novel, which happened to be – with the teacher’s permission – a romance. Of the steamy variety, with plenty of heaving breasts and burning britches. The teacher said his presentation was “brilliant,” filled with hilarious metaphors laced with innuendo that communicated the book’s flavour, but he also gave it a low grade because the innuendo was “inappropriate.” It was the dichotomy in the teacher’s reaction – his high opinion of the presenter’s abilities coupled with a low grade – that made me ponder. What message does this leave the student about what really counts? Competent, or even innovative, use of words to communicate effectively? No. Social conformity? Perhaps.
A week later, what really counts in science class, as opposed to English class, came up in discussion with a group of high school science teachers in Alberta. When I asked them what really matters, what they wanted their students to graduate high school with, they said lofty things: an appreciation of nature; a desire to learn about their world; an understanding of how to analyze, reason, use deductive logic; an ability to assess evidence and conclusions presented in media; and, good citizenship. What are science students tested on, however? Largely facts. Science teachers and science students alike are left to figure out for themselves what really counts.
The question of how much school itself counts was raised for me a couple of years ago when I wrote Edison’s Concrete Piano. Many of the sixteen great inventors I studied did not have regular schooling. Edison and Einstein’s difficulties fitting the education mold are relatively well known. Buckminster Fuller was the same. But many other greats also had irregular schooling because they were ill (e.g., James Watt and Nikola Tesla) or because they were homeschooled (e.g., Danny Hillis). I always thought the lack of school aided success because they managed to avoid some negative influence, but a new friend suggested what really counted towards these inventors' success was what they were gaining, not avoiding, by staying at home – such as countless hours tinkering in the garage.
The question of what really counts got personal the other day when I inadvertently heard that a co-worker was being paid more than me for similar work. Now, the day before, I was perfectly content with my pay rate, so it wasn’t the money that mattered. It all turned out to be a mistake but not before I realized just how much it matters to me that I am respected by others. Maybe too much.
But the biggest question about what really counts came with the privilege of spending a few hours with a colleague recently diagnosed with stage four cancer. The world seen through her eyes, even just a peek of it, gives a clear, lasting view of what matters. And it isn’t grades or grading, how much money we make, or even how much we are respected. It is how we take care of ourselves, and how positive a force we are in the lives of others. And, perhaps most acutely, it is the wonder of our existence as we interact with our Earth. It is the glint of sun on a frosted windshield and the ardent pink of an Echinacea petal. It is the soft divot at the edge of a smile, the air rushing in and out of our nostrils, and the thousands of other exquisite experiences we take for granted each and every day.