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In The Divine Comedy, Dante wrote, “In the middle of the journey of our life I came to myself
within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.”
One of my passions as an educator is helping students “come to themselves” when they are off
course, to discover (preferable long before they arrive at the middle of their lives) how their
“straight way was lost” and learn the personal life lesson their experience has to offer.
What better time to do that than at the end of the semester when the halls are rumbling with
the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat? The tool I use is as simple as it is powerful. In a
conference with a student, at a moment that seems most propitious, I lean forward and ask with
great curiosity and without an answer in mind, “So, what’s the life lesson for you here?” Then I sit
back and watch the student search, wriggle, ponder, wonder, explore, and, on those magnificent,
magical days, discover. And when they do discover, Mr. Dante Alighieri, ain’t life divine!
In the last week of this semester, Kelly and I were discussing how she had put off completing her
essays in developmental writing, and how she’s now having to work quadruple time because she
had not taken persistent 3-foot tosses throughout the semester. “So,” I asked her when the time
seemed ripe for self-discovery, “What’s the life lesson for you here?” She paused…then replied.
“When I enrolled in August, my motivation was my boyfriend, Mike. He wanted me to go to
college. I didn’t. When we broke up, I fell way behind. I almost dropped out. Then you and I had
that conversation about the benefits I’d get from a college degree. That’s when I realized that I
really DO want a better life for my 6-year-old son and me. And it really helped when you had me
describe the details of what our life will be like if I do get a degree and what it will be like if I don’t.
That realization really motivated me. So, my life lesson…?…Lasting motivation comes from within.
Before, I always waited for someone else to motivate me.” Bingo! We identified what she needed
to do to complete the course, made an appointment, and off she went to act on her discovery.
That same week, Shellyann and I were discussing how she had put off completing her essays in
developmental writing, and now she’s having to work quadruple time because she had not taken
persistent 3-foot tosses throughout the semester. Sound familiar? Hold on, though. “What’s my
life lesson?” she said, echoing my question. “Hmmmm?” she replied. I waited. She thought. She
had a look on her face that seemed to say, “I’m seeing something, and I’m not too pleased with
what I’m seeing.” I waited. Self-awareness needs space. She thought some more. “Well, I had a
lot of things go wrong this semester. It really wasn’t my fault that I was late so often. The busses in
this city never run on time.” “Is that your Inner Defender or your Inner Guide talking?” I asked. She paused. She still had that look on her face. No one sets out to disappoint
themselves, yet many
of us do just that. “My life lesson…hmmm…?” She shifted in her chair, looking at an invisible point
somewhere off in the corner of the room. “Well…I guess it's that I take the easy way out.” “So,” I
reflected, “you’ve realized that sometimes you don’t work very hard to get what you want?”
“Yeah, and then I lose opportunities. I lost a great job… and I lost a scholarship…. Yeah, I like
to take the easy way out.” Bingo! We identified what she needed to do to complete the course,
made an appointment, and off she went to act on her discovery.
Next time you want to throttle a student for making a strange, self-sabotaging choice, try this
instead: Lean forward, and ask (as if the student's future depended on the answer), “So, what’s the
life lesson for you here?”
Does it always work? Kelly was back every day that last week of the semester, working with
furious motivation to catch up. She did, and the look on her face was a combination of exhaustion
and exhilaration. She’s enrolled in my class again next semester, so I’ll be able to reinforce what
she’s learned about self-motivation and taking 3-foot tosses throughout the semester.
However, I haven’t seen or talked to Shellyann since that day. She blew off our appointment and
didn’t return my subsequent phone calls. So, did my little strategy help Shellyann? She failed
developmental writing, so it would appear my efforts didn't help her. But, when it comes to
self-awareness, who can say? Sometimes the transformational impact of collateral learning requires
incubation. Shellyann has glimpsed a great truth about herself. It’s just waiting to hatch into new
And Me? What’s the life lesson here for me? Here’s the great truth I extract from all of this: Every
course offered by the University of Life offers the potential of our better understanding the most
challenging curriculum of all—Ourselves.
--Skip Downing, Facilitator, On Course
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