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On the first day of 9th grade Biology, Mr. Melzer let us know what to do in case he had a heart attack in class. “Don’t bother contacting the school office, just call 911 directly. That’s what they’ll do at the office anyway.” Though he was certainly old, Mr. Melzer didn’t seem particularly infirm. He stood especially straight and looked like he could hold his own in a fistfight. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear he’d spent time in the military. If a history podcast mentions a king who continued to command his forces in person late in life, I’ll still sometimes picture him as Mr. Melzer.
We never ended up needing to call 911 for him. He retired halfway through the year. On his last day, he handed out light green pieces of paper on which he’d printed all the life lessons he hoped to impart to us. I remember taking the paper with a certain amount of awe. Right here in my hands was the rare opportunity to skip levels in life. Mr. Melzer was so old that he half expected to drop dead in front of us. Just for us, he’d condensed those years—no—decades of experience down into one double sided piece of printer paper with 14pt sans-serif font. Just by reading, I could get the benefit of a whole life’s experience without having to live it; I could be fifteen and sixty-five at once.
I have rarely read anything with such urgency. If the bell had rung to go to the next period, I would not have gone until I finished. The first few points felt a little obvious and general, but I continued on. When I got to the bottom of the first side without any revelation, I turned the page over and began the second side with a little more apprehension. When I finished that side I put the paper down, unchanged by what I’d read. The epiphany I’d been looking for was not there. These were a lifetime’s worth of wisdom. Why were none of them any good? The only one I remember now was something like, “Religion is a connection to the divine in a community. Spirituality is a connection to the divine alone.” Those were solid enough definitions, but they taught me nothing new.
The lesson I ended up getting from that list was not one printed on the page. It was how difficult it is to share your own personal realizations with another person. By now, everyone has heard about the value of kindness, the wonder of everyday life, the power of belief in oneself, etc. They’ve been repeated so many times that the meaning has been trampled out of them. What began as a shattering revelation congeals into a cliché.
Worse than being non-transferable, epiphanies are also exceptionally fragile. For example, a therapist once told me that one’s mistakes are actually quite valuable because they make you a better person. To me, this wasn’t so much an observation as it was a kind of alchemy: where previously they’d been shameful accidents, now my past mistakes were transmuted into hard won lessons. Later that day I gleefully repeated the idea to my sister over the phone. She did her best to sound as enthused as I was. Even so, as soon as I spoke the words aloud, I could feel the revelation dissolving. What had sounded inspired and obviously true when my therapist had said it now sounded trite and just plain obvious when I said it. If mistakes made me a better person, why did I keep making so many similar ones? And if I was making so many of them, was I really as good a person as I thought I was? Mistakes actually had the potential to make you a much worse person, now that I thought about it. Just like that, the epiphany had gone out like a candle in a gust of wind. My mind was a little darker without it. After that, I learned to wait to share these things until their luster has worn off and they aren’t so breakable anymore.
But while I’m careful with my own revelations, I’m always in search of other people’s. When I read, I’m looking for what I didn’t find in Mr. Melzer’s list. Why? At the end of his life spent turning down everything that might make him happy in order to concentrate on his work, Kafka wrote in a journal, “As if despair were not just as much of a distraction!” This is the kind of thing I would like to know before I’m about to die of tuberculosis. In fact, I’d like to know it as soon as possible.
Our personalities are composed of accumulated epiphanies like this, though most aren’t quite as big as Kafka’s. This is never as clear as when you look at an old picture of yourself. You see the haircut you had and the old jacket you’ve since given away. But you see more than that too. You’re separated not only by time, but by all of the realizations between yourself now and yourself then. You know the mistakes that person is on their way to making, the ones you could have avoided so easily if only you’d known what you know now. It’s like watching a horror movie. You want to scream at the characters not to go into that room, not to split up, to turn back now. But your younger self can’t hear you anymore than the movie can.
Mr. Melzer must have had a similar experience. I actually saw him once more after he retired. It was after a graduation ceremony. He was there for his students, I was there for my older sister. I was studying for the Biology SATs at the time and he told me, “If you remember half of what I taught you, you’ll be fine.” I remember thinking—I may have even said it—that, “Yeah, but have I remembered half of what you taught me?” At fifteen, I was only marginally more attentive than a photograph or a character in a horror movie. This must be one of the difficulties of being a teacher, of being any adult trying to teach students. You want to pass on everything you worked so hard to learn, Biology or otherwise, but it’s harder than it looks. You can give all the life lessons you want, but what really changes a person isn’t lessons, it’s life.
Once, the summer before my senior year of college, I was on a walk with a friend when we decided to lie down in the middle of a concrete walking path to look at the stars. There were plenty of pebbles in the concrete and it wasn’t especially comfortable. It happened to be alumni weekend and soon a man, maybe from the class of ‘92, came walking along and nearly tripped over us in the dark. I remember the look the man gave me. It was clear that he knew something I didn’t. He knew that one really ought not lie down in the middle of a concrete walkway, especially when there was grass not six feet away we could have sat down on instead. But there was something else in his face too. Nostalgia. He remembered when he used to lay on concrete or do things just as unaccountably foolish. He missed laying on the concrete, however uncomfortable it may have been.
The man walked on without comment. He knew, I imagine, that our only problem was that we were young and a few words from him weren’t going to change that. He knew that there is only one reliable cure for youth: age. We’d have to do a lot more dumb things before those dumb things taught us not to do them any more.