The surprise came early. 7th Grade.
All through elementary school, I was an academic wizard. Well, as magical as non-grade grades could be. “Outstanding” and “very good” were accompanied by “Danny is an enthusiastic learner” or “Danny loves to sing.” My two much older sisters were also academic stars, but with actual grades to prove it.
So, when I started 7th Grade and got only a 3.0 GPA, it was more than a disappointment to me and my parents. It was a surprise. Worse, the numbers steadily went down from there. My high school guidance counselor instructed me as a senior to pursue technical training. “You know, Dan, college isn’t for everyone.” He pulled an Al Campanis and claimed that “some folks just don’t have ‘the necessities.’ But that’s OK!” He meant it comfortingly.
I didn’t listen to him. Entering Western Washington State College directly from high school, I quit after one quarter. My 2.02 GPA belied a deeper reality. I had no idea where I was going, who I was, and what I wanted. And my D in French was undeserved. I should have flunked.
A succeeding year of unskilled dead-end jobs and flirtations with the wrong side of mental health came to focus my mind. Conclusion? I needed SOME career track, and for reasons no longer remembered, decided it was as a biologist. At 19, I enrolled at Bellevue Community College with that aim. Oddly enough though, if one wants to be a biologist, one does not actually take biology classes. Chemistry – yes. Physics, trigonometry, calculus – absolutely. Liberal arts “breadth” classes in English, political science, anthropology – of course. But not biology.
This community college late bloomer (as my dad called me at the time) began to come into his academic competence. For the first time, my numerical grades were good. Quite good actually. In approaching the decision of where – not if – to go on to a four-year school, I spent intense hours looking at academic catalogs. Each college wooed prospective students with heimishe photos, playful graphics, and haughty statements of the institution’s noble purposes and fine accomplishments.
Flipping through The Evergreen State College’s catalog, I read about a program called “Political Ecology.” Initially bewildered and enraptured at the same time, reading program details delivered a self-recognition. For the first time, my values and passions had a structure to inhabit. An epiphanic moment!
Heck – speaking to myself – I read newspapers. Volunteered for political campaigns. And I wanted to be a biologist. Was there actually something that included all that?! Later, I was to find that that something was called land use and environmental planning.
Evergreen’s catalog did the trick. I enrolled there, though never did take “Political Ecology” as it was a program for lower division students. Rather, I took “Environments: Chemistry, Ecology and Politics,” an upper division program that covered many of the same topics. Starting as the chemistry expert in ECEP, I ended the program more attracted to the politics angle than anything else. As I learned more about land use planning, my academic and career goals fell quickly and smoothly into place. I set myself up with a bizarrely specific goal – to be a Planning Director of a small city or rural county on the edge of a metropolitan area. Eight years later, at age 30, I achieved that career objective precisely, as the Community and Economic Development Director for the city of Tumwater, Washington.
The “Political Ecology” moment proved decisive. It would link personal growth with personality orientation and eventually professional advancement and accomplishment. So much of my identity would be wrapped in that professional milieu. Citizen involvement, public policy development, governance structure, land use, environmental and fiscal analyses became much of who I was. Not just what I did.
Possessing an identity, being someone you want to be and present yourself as, is crucial to a healthy life. It provides meaning and purpose. A cohesive narrative of self. So much of my identity was derived from my professional work. Yet, there were doubtless downsides in integrating ones work tightly with identity.
I ponder how different it must be for those folks who don’t “find themselves” in their work. Is it hard to maintain an interest and purpose in one’s daily toils? Retirement now is a test of that proposition. Certainly, a career also keeps one away from much in life. People can and do find their identity outside of paid work. Hobbies. Avocations. Family and friends.
I count myself lucky to have had the epiphany of “Political Ecology.” In general, I feel blessed where it took me. But there is only so much one can do and be in this snippet of time we have on Earth. My epiphanic moment cut off options to explore others. Fulcrums open and close paths. Whether we want them to or not.
Choosing life is about seeking and embracing those fulcrums that may still be to come.