Embracing the Unexpected
During our final Middle School meeting, I shared this message with students.
Years from now, when you look back on this school year, you won’t remember everything. You won’t remember what you ate for lunch each day. I mean, do you remember what you had for lunch last Friday? You won’t remember every game you played, every quiz you took, every lab you conducted, or every paper you wrote.
Some memories stay bright, and some fade with time. Try this experiment: Think back to your second-grade year. Picture the classroom in as much detail as you can. You probably remember your teacher’s name. But could you name every person in your class? Every book you read? Probably not, but I’m sure you could tell me a few stories from that year—perhaps a story about a class pet, or a drama on the playground, or a time you felt embarrassed or scared.
Our brains love stories. It’s how we make sense of the world. We remember stories better than almost anything else. According to research, we remember more information—up to 22 times more—when it is woven into stories than if we just hear facts alone.
So let me tell you a story—one I think about all the time. It’s a Taoist folktale that goes something like this:
One day, a poor farmer’s only horse ran away. “What terrible luck!” said his neighbors.
“Maybe, maybe not,” he replied.
The next week, the horse returned and brought with it two wild horses that the man and his son corralled. “What wonderful luck!” said his neighbors.
“Maybe, maybe not,” he responded.
A few days later, as the farmer’s son tried to tame one of the new horses, he fell off and broke his leg. “What horrible luck,” said his neighbors.
“Maybe, maybe not,” he replied.
The next week, the imperial army came through the town, rounding up soldiers for battle. The farmer’s son, because of his injury, was spared.
This story captures something we all experience in life. Sometimes we expect something to be fun or wonderful—but it doesn’t turn out that way. And sometimes what seems like bad luck opens a door to something unexpectedly wonderful.
Let me tell you a story from when I was a sixth grader. It was a Saturday, and my parents were away for the day. I don’t remember where. But I remember that they had arranged for me to spend the day at my cousins’ house, and I was so excited to hang out with them all day. We had plans to get ice cream, watch movies, eat pizza, and play Dungeons & Dragons. I spent the whole week counting the days to Saturday.
Shortly after my parents left, my uncle called. The stomach bug had hit their house. It would be best if I stayed home. “Just call if you need anything,” he said. “I’m sure you can entertain yourself.”
So there I was, stuck alone at home with nothing to do. I was disappointed and very, very bored. I lay on my bed, staring at the ceiling. At some point, I noticed a book on the shelf called My Brother Sam Is Dead, which I had gotten as a present but had never opened.
Reading was not my favorite pastime. But hey—I had hours to fill and nothing better to do. So I started to read. And as I turned pages, something almost magical happened: I got lost in the book. I lost all sense of time. I didn’t stop for lunch. I read and read and read until I got to the end. I remember that day as the first time in my life I understood the power of a book to transport me to a different place and time. So when my uncle called to cancel our plans, was that bad luck? Maybe, maybe not.
Here’s another story, from a few years later. When I was a senior at Rivers, I got injured, and I wasn’t able to wrestle. Wrestling was my sport, and now—during my last year—I couldn’t be on the team.
I needed something to do after school, so I asked my middle school wrestling coach if I could return to my old school and help him coach. He was glad to bring me on as an assistant. One day, as I was leaving practice, I ran into the headmaster of that school. To this day, I remember where we were both standing. He had heard good things about my coaching, he said. Would I be interested in doing my senior internship at the school—to come back and help out in middle school science and Latin classrooms?
I was surprised by the idea, but I said yes. And that is what set me on the path to becoming a middle school educator. So was my season-ending injury bad luck, or did it open a door?
We all have stories like this if we stop to think about it. When things don’t go as planned, it creates a disruption. It forces us to look at our lives in a new way. That can be uncomfortable. The challenge is to find the good in life’s unexpected twists and turns.
As we head into summer—a well-deserved break after a wonderful year—I want to close with the same message I shared last year: This summer, get lost!
Get lost in a book. Get lost in a math problem. Get lost in an art project. Get lost in the woods. Get lost in an idea. Get lost making something, building something, playing something, writing something, dreaming something.
Because when we get lost in something, we discover new possibilities. We go down unexpected paths. As you explore and wander, you will have your own “maybe, maybe not” moments. Just try to remember: When life doesn’t go as planned, sometimes that’s when the magic happens.