I was lucky in high school.
I was never bulled or teased or shunned; I had a good experience. And yet in spite of that, I couldn’t escape the fact that even with my friendships and the fun I had, I always felt different from my peers. I was a dyed-in-the-wool geek who spent my time reading classics like The Brothers Karamazov, who wrote novels for fun, played Japanese RPGs, and loved researching world history. Though my parents encouraged my interests and supplied a steady stream of material to sate my voracious appetite for reading, I couldn’t share the things I liked most with my friends – they laughed when I used “big words” and were far more interested in high school gossip. My interests were something I kept confined to home and family.
And then came Mr. B, my AP English teacher. He was a slight and calm man, sensitive, with a razor wit and a bone-dry sense of humor. He wrote literature quotes on the board before class. He forced us to memorize the monologues in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and recite them. He exulted over Wuthering Heights. And we all adored him. His enthusiasm was infectious.
It was Mr. B who nicknamed me “the wordsmith,” and in doing so implied to the class that a massive vocabulary wasn’t a quirk but a strength to be envied and admired. It was Mr. B who scribbled enthusiastic comments all over my work and encouraged me to read and write as much as I could. It was Mr. B who, when I presented my senior project – a novel I had written – engaged with it as though it was an actual work of literature and not a fantasy epic written by a high schooler. I remember sitting with him while he questioned me about my character’s motivations and the themes throughout the chapters, analyzing it like we had analyzed Native Son.
It was Mr. B who, when I shyly told him I wanted to get my Ph.D. – a dream I had revealed only to my parents – gave me a little smile and a nod. “You’ll get your Ph.D.,” he said. “You will.”
And I did.
There was Dr. K, too: Dr. K who looked, to me, like a literal Moses with his long white beard and bushy brows and fierce dark eyes. Dr. K who read us the prologue to the Canterbury Tales in Middle English and left us awestruck; Dr. K who hosted cookouts at his house for the tired senior English students. It was Dr. K who spent extra hours of office time helping guide me through independent study research, and it was Dr. K I invited to my wedding. He was a professor and I was a student, but he stayed until the end, and he was one of the guests clapping when my husband and I fled to the car.
Today, when I teach, sometimes I pause and I get a little catch in my throat, because I hear both of those men in a turn of phrase I use, in a gesture, when I am reading aloud. They took joy in their work, and in doing so, taught me how to take joy in it. They gave me the gift of being able to love what I loved, and to understand that as a strength I could also use to give joy to others.
I don’t believe it was an accident that they were both believers.
You may not realize it, but whatever you are doing at this moment, you have the inestimable chance to make an impact on the people around you simply by the virtue of your passion in the Lord and in your work. A Christian clothed in gladness, to paraphrase Psalm 30:11, shines like a star in the dimness, and their value is not in the money they earn or in their productivity, but in their embrace of who and how they are: an enthusiasm and a passion that becomes contagious. When you work with joy, when you live with joy, and when you find joy in the moments, that will naturally pass on to others around you.
Without Mr. B or Dr. K, or my parents, or the people in my life who found joy in their work – who made joy their work, regardless of what they were doing – I don’t believe I would have found joy in mine. By taking the small tasks and doing them with great verve, by going out of their way with a smile and great enthusiasm, they taught me that there really is a bedrock of deep love, and hope, and delight in everything and at all times.
Leave a legacy of joy, so that others may learn to do the same.