When I was seven years old I spent four months in the hospital for a heart condition. I got through the ordeal, in part, because an old, reclusive neighbor dropped off three shopping bags of National Geographic magazines. I devoured stories of exotic locales and vowed that someday I’d have my own Nat Geo experience.
In my senior year of college I was offered the opportunity to teach at Xavier High School on the Pacific island of Weno in the Truk (Chuuk) Lagoon (part of the Federated States of Micronesia). I was fortunate to have lived there when life was still unplugged and a trusty portable typewriter was my “tablet.” Today, my home office is a veritable Apple outlet, but the three years I lived in Truk was life changing.
Here are the 12 most enduring lessons I learned from that adventure and that guided my life ever since.
- Be in the moment
Imagine being in a meeting with colleagues and no one looks down at a smartphone. The ability to focus on what is happening in the present is startling.
- Offer only your best to others
Whenever I visited, people welcomed me by sharing freely — food, beverage and laughter. By the time I left to return to the States, TV had arrived in the islands. On my last night, I visited the home of my student Salvelo. His family had one of the first TV sets. It was sitting atop a table at the far end of the main room. Everyone was stretched out on mats watching. Salvelo’s mother gave me her mat so I’d have the best view. It was one of the most surreal moments in my life. Yet, typical of true hospitality — unhesitating giving.
- Story begets story
Because there was no TV at the school, we entertained ourselves. At night, I’d go to the back of campus where students would light a fire, lop off some coconuts and we’d sit around telling stories. My grandmother had been a prison guard in NYC for thirty-five years, so I could match any of their shark attack yarns!
- All people share three things in common
GiGi, a Filipina who left home for political reasons and who was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met, had a personal story of love, pain and loss that was poignant and harrowing. She once told me that every person loves someone, has lost someone or something precious and is afraid of something. Wonderfully dramatic, but I’ve yet to meet the person for whom this isn’t true.
- You can’t run away from pain
Sue volunteered to teach in the Science Department because she was fed-up with life in Los Angeles where men ignored all 375-pounds of her. What she didn’t know is that in Truk, big women are considered beautiful. Sue lasted three months, as she couldn’t handle the lavish attention. She returned to LA without having made peace with herself.
- Carpe Diem
When the job was offered to me, I had no idea where I was going. And that’s what I loved — the adventure of it all. My comfort zone was shattered. Being uncomfortable allowed the world to never be the same for me. Seize the day — and not just a day-planner app!
- There’s more to life than meets the eye
My first night at the school the generator was turned off at 10:00 p.m. and the campus was dropped into an inky black, unnerving silence. Norman and Taka, two of the teachers, took me up to the roof where I became dizzy from what I saw. As a boy from the Bronx, no one ever explained how the night sky is exploding with stars. And every day for the next three years I learned that there is just so much more to the world than I could ever take in.
- The pen is mightier than the text
Marshall McLuhan famously claimed, “The message is the medium.” But it’s equally true that the medium dictates the message. Having no laptop, I could only write letters. With pen in hand, I reflect and compose differently from when I’m dashing off an email or a scrunched text. Being a multi-tech user allows me to experience a variety of thinking.
- Grit has no expiration date
Francoise was a seventy-five-year-old “broad” who wanted an adventure. And so she replaced Sue as head of the Science Department. She was game for anything — including a role in my production of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians.” She was the first character to be bumped-off and she died with aplomb. Generosity of spirit is ageless.
- Resourcefulness animates learning
I was assigned to teach literature, but was given no syllabus and few textbooks. Since I’d never taken an education course in college, I simply recalled all the teachers who I didn’t like and then did the opposite. I trusted my imagination, created a curriculum, made a ton of mistakes and along the way educated my students to appreciate the power of the written word. The power of their imaginations. The power that comes from thinking.
- Manhattan is not the center of the universe
For all my enthusiasm and goodwill, I really wasn’t aware of the breadth of cross-cultural differences I’d encounter. “Be you” translates differently in a communal-based culture that puts a premium on “we” as opposed to the fast-talking, every person for him/herself world of NYC. I had to learn how to be a guest — and to see the world from a different perspective.
- We are who we believe ourselves to be
I taught poetry to the frosh. At end of term, I put together a collection of their work and called it, “AH!” That summer, an Australian anthropologist stayed with the family of Bellarmine, one of my students. On her first night with them, Belarmine asked the anthropologist, “Would you like me to read some poems I’ve written. I’m a poet.” She was amused that he called himself a “poet.” Months later, she told me that her evening with “Bellarmine the poet” was pure magic. And so it is that we become who we say we are.
Although this journey took place years ago, the gifts of that unplugged life anchor me today in my oh-so-plugged-in world. The enduring gift of Truk is simply this:
it is the quality of our daily life that matters most.
With or without technology, each of us is the creator of that quality.