Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Awakenings, Hump Day Hmm

When I was in grade school, every new year the teacher for language arts would ask the class to write a story about their summer vacation, or something important in our lives. My mind immediately turned to November 26, 1986, every single time. At least until I was fourteen. During that year, I finally felt like I had captured the story, and I finally had a some sense of peace about that night, so I quit writing the same story over and over.

That was the night my world seemed to turn upside down. Before that night, I was a sensitive, sometimes bratty, but generally trusting little boy. I always knew I was safe, though, because my big brother won every "my big brother can... your big brother..." debate in my mind, so much so I rarely felt a need to engage in such exchanges as other children often did. My brother was brilliant, and he was strong as an ox. I used to do pull ups on his biceps. In my mind, he was invincible. I learned not to see anyone that way ever again that night, when my brother's life tragically ended.

I could mark time in my life after that by remembering if it was before 1986 or after, before the accident or after, before I became a somber little fellow or after. It wasn't long after that when I received my first "little old man" label. I became extremely aware of my own and others' mortality. I also felt a great sense for many years that I must live up to my brother's great example. He wanted to be a science fiction writer, so he went to Georgia Tech to study engineering. He died as a freshman just before completing his fall term. So for years I planned to study engineering, as my sister also did. I knew that it wasn't for me by high school, though, and instead felt I couldn't go to Georgia Tech because I wanted to study the law or business. Then Georgia Tech came calling me. They offered me a great scholarship, along with certain privileges and rights, and they told me about how much money had just been invested in their business school by the founder of Applebee's to help it become a great college in that field. It was too hard to turn away from a school I had always loved and admired, so I matriculated.

Ever heard "the check's in the mail"? Well, apparently Georgia Tech believed that line when they went ahead and changed to the Dupree School of Management, because Mr. Dupree had not actually given them money - he instead gave them options that became almost immediately devalued and therefore essentially worthless. They might as well have agreed to the name change in exchange for a pile of free dinner coupons that were already expired. I learned all of these details only months after I was already attending what I came to call the "Preschool of Management" (that was, after all, how they seemed to answer their phones - call them sometime for a laugh). I sat among many of Georgia Tech's finest - and not so "finest" - athletes, attempting to glean from the experience just how I was supposed to learn enough to get a job. After I heard the second story of "Yeah, my best friend got a job as a Walmart manager after he graduated from here, so I'm hoping he can get me on there." I became somewhat concerned. I was not feeling at all challenged by my courses, having aced my first two quarters. The only difficulty I had was not wanting to set my dorm on fire because of all the morons inside who treated me so terribly. I found out only later that most of them would not last at Tech because they were the ones for whom this orientation speech was intended, "Look to your left, and look to your right. One of those two students won't be here at graduation. If it's not one of them, then it's you." When I heard it, I looked to one side at my roommate, who I knew would kill himself before leaving, and to the other at an empty chair and quipped "I guess it'll be me!" It was.

Leaving the school I had cheered for from such a young age, realizing I could (and should) no longer chase my brother's ghost - that became my second awakening. I was now older than him. I had achieved more, in a way, or at least achieved different things. He and I were not that much alike in the end. Somehow losing that "rabbit" to chase crushed me for a time. I dragged my way through two more years of school, taking a demanding schedule and not committing myself to it like I knew I could and should. Still, I graduated and embarked on another step in life my brother would never reach - working life.

I worked for several years, first in sales, then in safety, and eventually in general management of my company before deciding I felt there was something else for me. I prayed about it, and I studied for the GMAT, and I took the test. As I've written about previously on this blog, I received a strong answer to my prayer that let me know I was indeed meant to return to school. In my time preparing for school and then attending, I had another awakening. I realized that I could move to places outside of Georgia. I could pursue the girl of my dreams. I could imagine a reason to get a Ph.D. I could do something completely different from what I had done before. My eyes were open to a whole new world of opportunity.

And I nearly let the view of that opportunity grow dim in the years that followed. I got married to that wonderful girl, and I did move out west for a time, but the need to make a living superseded any ideas of chasing dreams. I went back to work for the company I left before graduate school, and I took on many of the same duties. I'd like to think a lot of the policies I'd changed before I left help the company grow to new heights during the period of my return. The company also learned a lot of hard lessons along the way as well, though. Now, having come through many different trials, the company has again found its way to a future of hope. I have enjoyed nurturing it along the way, but then a few months ago, I had a great conversation with my best friend. In a way, it was like breathing in smelling salts, because the fog was suddenly lifted again.

I knew I could go on and do well in my business for years to come, but I knew again that there was something else out there I must pursue. I again prayed and studied for the GMAT, and I again received the same confirmation that I should go back to school. In a way, all of my previous awakenings seem to have led up to this one, as I wrote in this post. Now I see what my life's work is meant to be, especially after my trip to California. I also believe I needed to take each step along the way to give myself the chance to learn and grow as a person. Hopefully I will be a better researcher and professor one day as a result.

-- Robert

P.S.: In reading back over this post, it clearly goes beyond the scope of one year or event as suggested by the Hump Day Hmm, but I just couldn't bring myself to write a story only about 1986. As I said in the beginning of the post, I've written that story half a dozen times at least. So instead I wrote about the journey of awakenings I have experienced, beginning at the earliest one which made me so very self-aware at a young age.


Melissa said...

I wish I had something more to say than "great post". But it was. And I wanted you to know it, even though I'm not capable of stringing two thoughts together today. :)

Robert said...

Thanks, Melissa.

Julie Pippert said...

You didn't break any rules. I'm flexible, and clearly my topic bounced between 1984 and 2008. :)

Great post, very honest, very personal. What a significant event---I'm not sure how else to say it. Tragic, altering, and so forth.

You really conveyed all of that and how it shaped your life.

Robert said...

Like I said in the post, it was a story I've told over and over again. It just felt right to include it, in some form at least, on my blog. I didn't describe in the post one of the other significant events that helped me get past it (it wasn't just that I wrote it down well finally). That was a profound experience of feeling the Spirit come upon me and give me a sense of peace and comfort when I was feeling quite terrible just a moment before. It changed my life just as much, because I knew forever after that I was loved.

Natasha Becoming Something said...

Wow. Compelling. I'm very sorry to hear about your brother. That must have been heart-wrenching and life-altering for your family. I don't know what it's like to lose someone close to me. The strangeness of it boggles my mind.

I have a friend who lost a baby in utero at 8 months and afterward I spent a lot of time reading C.S. Lewis's A Grief Observed. It helped me a lot to understand.

Thankfully, families are forever.

Robert said...

Yes, we've had two miscarriages. The first one was so unexpected, it rocked our world. It's hard to explain to people who've never been through a miscarriage why it would feel so sad. The second was sad, but we knew from a blessing that we would be pregnant again soon. That "soon" is now a child on the way right now. And yes, families being forever has definitely helped with the coping.

And yes, my family changed completely after my brother died. It brought us closer, though, I think. I would love to have my big brother here to talk to about life, but life is what it is. We can't change the past, just cope and move forward.