Life Happens Every Day

Yesterday, I wrote a post asking if we really suck at math and questioning the value of spending 15 hours a day, seven days a week, from kindergarten to tenth-grade on the path to achieve a perfect math SAT score.

Today, I read the last post by Derek Miller. It begins,

“Here it is. I’m dead ….”

If you haven’t read his blog, which, tragically, will now be an archive, I highly recommend it. He wrote publicly about his struggle with cancer and his last post was written to be published after he had died.

It was a very sad, odd juxtaposition of pieces to read – the mother who is encouraging her son to live every day for tomorrow, and the man who died yesterday.

Over eight months ago, I resigned my university position, where I’m sure I could have retired or died at my desk, after the gradual realization sunk in that we had done well enough over the last decade that I could afford to just work on what I wanted for the next few years, and maybe forever. Having been such a workaholic all of my life (you have no idea), leaving home at age 15 and supporting myself ever since, it was an unprecedented transition. Even now, when people ask me,

“How do you like working at a slower pace like that?”

I still answer,

“You know, I don’t really know how I feel about it.”

It’s probably true that, as my niece noted, my slower pace is most people’s normal life, but that’s not the point. For me, not being focused on taking EVERY contract that comes along, EVER turning down work and not being in a new city so often that I have no idea what to put on websites that asks for my time zone – well, it’s been a mid-life crisis level shift.

It did occur to me today that a year ago, I probably wouldn’t have had the time to read Derek Miller’s blog, get my hair cut, read the LA Times and talk to my daughter, Ronda, all within 24 hours. Tom, the gentleman who cuts my hair has owned Ambiance Hair Salon in Santa Monica for over 25 years, and been in business for over 40 years. He has a pretty successful life. [Anyone who is on Main St., two blocks from the Pacific Ocean, didn’t make too many wrong turns in life.] We talked about the importance (or not) of perfect SAT scores. He said that he had enough of school after high school, he always wanted to be in business for himself and that’s what he’s done.

We were talking about the LA Times article and Ronda said,

“Well, she just wants her kid to do well on his tests so he can get into a good college and have a good life. I think she means well, but I wouldn’t want to be her kid.”

Is it true that if you don’t ace your SAT scores you fail in life? I thought about this as I drove down Lincoln today and saw all of the businesses along the street. I really doubt that all (or most) of the people who own the businesses had perfect SAT scores. I thought about it again as I drove back from Ronda’s house. She is the only one of my children who did not graduate from an “elite” university. In fact, she didn’t graduate from college at all. She went to the last two Olympics and now is competing in mixed martial arts. I like her house. It’s really pretty and comfortable. She shares it with a couple of very nice people and three dogs.

I concluded that one major advantage of not working at breakneck speed any more is that it gives me the opportunity to actually think about life, the past and the future, rather than just barreling through. Thinking about why I would not follow what the mother featured in the LA Times did, I remember a professor, J.T. Dillon, in graduate school who made us write what I thought were the most bizarre assignments for a course on Curriculum and Instruction. We had to answer these questions:

What is the good man, living the good life in the good society?


What must everyone learn and why must everyone learn that?

Over twenty years later, I realize the wisdom of what he was trying to teach us. His point was that we should ask WHY. Why do students need to know the answer to every math question on the SAT? Is it all about doing things we don’t like so we can make money to buy stuff we don’t need to impress people we don’t like?

I actually had a very close to perfect math SAT score, went to college at 16 and made a fair bit of money. However, I sure as hell did not spend 15 hours a day seven days a week studying and I’m sure if that mom in San Marino knew what I actually did from kindergarten through college, she’d be appalled. I studied stuff that interested me, competed in sports, went to a lot of parties, read a lot of books that had no purpose other than I felt like reading them. I played piano in duets with my brother and we pushed each other off the piano bench. I dug in the dirt, camped, hiked in the woods and generally was a kid. I skipped school, went skinny-dipping and got picked up by the police for various things the police pick you up for when you’re a teenager.

AND YET, if I had died at 19, I would have had a pretty good run. By that age, I’d graduated from college, set a few school track records, won a national judo championships and spent a year living in Japan.

If I’d died at 31, I would have been about the age of the oldest son of the woman in that article, the one who was pointed out that it was proof her system worked because he was in graduate school at MIT. By 31, I’d worked as an engineer for several years, had three children, finished two masters degrees, my Ph.D. and won a world judo championships. I’d also gone skinny dipping in Lake Havasu with my husband, gone hiking in the mountains, run several 10Ks just for the hell of it, trained in Switzerland, France, Japan and England. I’d have been sad to have missed my children growing up, but if I’d died at 31, I’d still know I’d had a pretty good run.

Derek Miller died at 41. Undoubtedly, he was sorry to leave behind his wife and children, but he lived a good life.

THIS is what I mean by balance, it’s not doing whatever you feel like at the moment but it’s also not putting off living until some later date. If you haven’t seen the video by Gretchen Rubin on the Years Are Short, I think it should be required viewing for everyone in the maternity ward.

Childhood, adolescence, young adulthood  – it isn’t preparation for life. It IS life.

That is one of the arguments I have against focusing on perfect SAT scores. Alex de Tocqueville said,

“As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”

Less than perfect math SAT scores do not preclude you from bringing in a decent amount of money – as Tom proves by his hair salon near the beach. Still, I am perfectly willing to concede that perfect math scores do increase the probability of making a lot of money, in large part because they increase the probability of getting into a “good” school which increases the chances of you getting a high-paying job when you get out. Is it worth living the first third or more of your life as nothing more than focused on making a lot of money? I would say not.

Is the difference between making the honor roll every semester (which all of my children are expected to do) and making perfect grades worth giving up sports, hiking, laying on your back looking at the clouds and sleepovers with your best friend? I would say not.

In the end, I would say, the main advantage I have gained from cutting my work hours in half is the time to ask questions about WHY.

The real irony of this is that Dr. Dillon’s course would not at all fit with our current emphasis on benchmarks or learning outcomes or marketable skills. And no one ever seems to ask, “Why not?”

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  1. Thank you! I think it’s interesting that you and I both had poignant posts on May 6. And here I was worried about being the only one not talking about coding and buzz words.

  2. I would say you have come a long way in the twenty or so years that I have known you. From the lady would pop open her laptop the second she sat down to actually taking time off as you now do. However, I detect a little reluctance to break from the attitude (competing in sports, making tons of money, etc.,) that made you successful. And maybe that is okay to hold on to a little of who you were as a young adult. Another way to look at it, your early dedication to perfection made it possible for you to be able to do reflex on your life before it is to late. And I might add, thank goodness you has the sense to do so…

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