SOESD / Learning Matters / Newsletter Archive / June 2008 / Changing the World: One Life at a Time
Changing the World: One Life at a Time
By Steve Boyarsky, Superintendent
I can remember back to a discussion in my senior English class as we were preparing to graduate from high school. We were sharing what was next for us and our dreams for the future. We seemed to all agree that we were going to go out in the world and make a difference. We were going to right all the wrongs and make the world a better place. I remember the discussion as passionate and meaningful. One of our classmates, Abebe Abraham, an exchange student from Ethiopia, was listening but not contributing to the conversation. The teacher, Mrs. Walker, asked Abe (his nickname) what he thought. Abe, in his quiet and thoughtful way stated, “I think you are setting yourselves up for disappointment.” There was a kind of reflexive class response, “No, man, we are going to change the world.”
Abe went on in his humble way: “This is all well-meaning, but in reality what can we do about changing the world? Perhaps all we can do is be a good person, raise our children to be good people and help those closest to us. Setting your sights on changing the world is overly ambitious. Chasing this dream will distract us from what we can do which is to change the world one life at a time.”
I respected Abe’s viewpoint but dismissed his comments as not really having an American perspective. He was from a developing nation and had accepted life’s limitations. Dreams of changing the world continued on through college. And then the reality of “making ends meet” clashed head-on with changing the world. There weren’t any job descriptions which included, “has to be passionate about changing the world.” Jobs as a carpenter’s apprentice, school bus driver, and mill worker didn’t have much promise to change the world. Abe’s perspective was taking on a new meaning.
Recently, I read an article, about the goals of America’s young people. The vast majority of college freshmen reported wanting to be well-off financially or famous. In distant third was help the needy, even further behind was being a leader in the community. The Pew Research Center’s annual survey showed that from 1966 to 1986, the percentage of freshmen who considered “being financially well-off very important” increased from 42% to 73% and has held steady at that number for the past 20 years. Educators have sold college as being the means to financial well-being. Post-secondary education does make a statistical difference in earnings, but this is not the only reason to pursue education beyond high school. The realities of being rich can fade for those “wanna be” pro football players and movie actresses. Being rich and famous are long shots and in Abe’s words, “I think you are setting yourself up for disappointment.”
The expectation gap between dreams and reality can be difficult. I know many young adults who have experienced a “quarter-life crisis” over the reality that they have to start work at the bottom. Beginning wages don’t come close to the material dreams of “being rich and famous.” Being worthwhile, however, isn’t determined by being rich or by being famous. Much of our culture sends the wrong message, overemphasizing the importance of money and fame. Some people will do almost anything, compromising many of their moral beliefs in the search for fame and fortune. They miss out on the honor in work, being a good person and giving to others. Enriching the lives of children, making a contribution to those around us, and giving to the community are elements of greatness we all can achieve. My friend from Ethiopia was right: we can change the world—one life at a time. The important successes we have at Southern Oregon ESD do change the world—one child and one family at a time.