Life Tip #35

The best teachers are our experiences.

We often hear the question asked, “Who was the teacher that made the most impact on your life?” When I pondered this question recently, I really had a hard time thinking of anyone. I was not a standout student. I viewed school as a necessary evil, and I probably made no memorable impression on any one teacher, nor did they on me. But then I remembered one teacher who, to be honest, was responsible for changing the entire trajectory of my life, and it wasn’t even in an education setting, which is why it slipped my mind.

Mr. Kaelin was my high school German teacher and my cross country coach. For some unknown reason, every summer, Mr. Kaelin would invite 4-5 students to go with him on a grand vacation, parent approved and funded of course. In the summer after my sophomore year, he chose me and three other guys to go out West for a 10-day trip. We saw lots of Colorado and Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park, and Mount Rushmore, among other sights.

That trip opened my eyes to the very simple yet elusive fact that, yes, you can just get in your car and travel to whatever parts of the United States you heart desires. Of course, we all know and learn about other states, monuments, and popular destinations in school and elsewhere. We all had to memorize the state capitals after all, right? But growing up in Kentucky, my family’s summer vacations included drives down I-75 to Florida to see our grandparents or trips to the various Kentucky State Parks. One or the other. While those trips were fun, it comprised my entire universe. It never occurred to me that a regular person could just pack up and go wherever they want. That is, until a teacher loaded me and three other teens in a car and did just that.

I know with certainty that that trip gave me at least some of the courage and spirit needed to leave home for the Air Force a few years later, which then led to the courage and spirit to head deep into South America for two years in the Peace Corps. I’m still amazed to think of all that I learned and experienced since that change in my life direction. That opportunity to step out of my current universe—my comfort zone—opened up the whole world to me.

So the Life Tip here is to be on the alert for learning opportunities disguised as something simple, like “just a vacation.” They often come from the least expected people, places, and circumstances.

Bonus Life Tip: If we allow ourselves to leave our comfort zone, to step outside our current universe, we give ourselves the opportunity for a truly world-class education, priceless life lessons, and unforgettable experiences. I could have easily said no to that trip out West for a variety of reasons: it’s weird to go on a vacation with a teacher; I don’t know those other kids well enough; the vacation will cut into my partying time with my friends. I shudder to think about how different my life would have turned out if I had not stepped out of my comfort zone to take that trip.

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