What Are You Waiting For?
As printed in Proteus, the Journal of the Delaware Valley Mensa  (Aug 2010)


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I was one of two alumni speakers at my HS teacher’s memorial on June 19, 2010. May the message I shared that night prompt you to action as it honors his memory.—NCM 

As of yesterday, I completed a weeklong karate workshop in eastern Pennsylvania. At one of the meals, someone wore a T-shirt that read as follows:

Haikus are easy
But sometimes they don't make sense
Refrigerator

James Todd King is the person with whom I most wanted to share that. He would have chuckled, then scribbled away, constructing the perfect response. He once took on the task of writing 100 haiku in 24 hours, just for the creative exercise. This should surprise no one here. With life's interruptions, the project stretched over three days instead of just one, but – as he said – "on [he] slogged" until it was done. As I shared his deep affection for these charming, 17-syllable blocklets of thought, he started his project with a few haiku just for me. Here is one of them:

Peripatetic
gravitational goddess
with punches of note

I choose this one to share with you not because he tossed in a reference to my aforementioned interest in karate, nor because he referred to me as a "gravitational goddess," though I do think it's cool (for context, I was a high jumper on the Track team). I share this with you because he began with the word, "peripatetic." I freely admit that I had to look it up, and many have joked in recent weeks that this was not an uncommon phenomenon; friendship with this man was an ongoing lesson in vocabulary.

The thing is, he knew when he was over our heads. But he never rubbed our noses in it, as other lofty minds have been known to do. No, friends. He fully expected us to reach a little higher. And if – when – we found within ourselves the desire to do so, he was there, proud, but already pointing out the next rung above us, and on we would climb.

I'll read you his inscription on the back of a beautiful drawing of his that I had admired for years in room 107, and that he gave to me after my graduation in 1991:

Nicole – I sometimes regret that I've so popularized TSE's "Prufrock"
that his "dare disturb the universe" has become rather overused around
here. So let me cite a second idea for you:
(Let not) the wind say: "Here were a decent godless people: / Their only
monument the asphalt road / And a thousand lost golfballs."*
In short, aspire somehow to greatness, dearest; be memorable!
*(citation is from Eliot's "The Rock" 1932)

We tend to respect those who themselves do what they advise others to do. And here, as we look around at faces mirroring our own smiles mingled with sadness, we can see precisely why James Todd King so earned our respect: because he succeeded where he asked us to succeed. Where he asks us to succeed. And here we are. And this is life. Where lives intersect, they are forever changed. Those of us who intersected with JTK in the classroom were changed over the course – the American Literature course – of a 40-minute block, a week, a quarter, a semester, an academic year. And so was he. And then beyond the classroom were letters, cards, books, artwork. And facebook. Status comments. Link-liking. Messages and chats. And then... a deeply painful silence. Yet only a brief one, for we had forgotten to keep listening.

In shock, we huddled together for warmth in the frigid silence. Then, as the mist began to clear, there was his voice again. His older lessons began to reassemble from scattered memories. His more recent ones became clearer under our own retroactive focus. And for the rest of our days, in our reaching out to know, in our questioning to understand, in our struggling to create, there he will be because he helped to shape our ability to do each one.

We realize now that, from now on, we will each hear him in our own way, drawing completely new insights from words he wrote or spoke to us before, and from words we know he would say tomorrow. Indeed, in addition to offering us years of his thoughtful counsel, tender sympathy, timely encouragement, witty commentary, and so much more, his most enduring gift to us is that he heeded his own call to "be memorable." We owe it to him to do the same.

I will end on a personal note. I cannot think how much more painful this might be for many of us if we had not been in touch with him so recently, if we were not secure in the knowledge that he knew who he was to us. I know what that means to me, and I can imagine what it meant to him. A coworker of mine would often say, "Give people their flowers while they are alive." And we did. JTK got full on bouquets from us every day. But I suspect that you and I might have more flowers in us, and only we can know who is waiting to receive them.

Let us learn one more lesson from our teacher before this night is through. Let us take advantage of the time we have, not only to embrace our own lives, but also to let those who have impacted our lives know exactly what we appreciate about them. Tomorrow is not promised. So find them. Tell them. Send a text. Make a call. Find a card. Mail a glorious, multi-page, handwritten letter. Don't wait until this window of time is no longer open to you. And no, "I prefer not to" is not an acceptable response. Consider it an order from a peripatetic gravitational goddess with punches of note.

Or you can consider it one small portion of your ongoing commitment to the memory of James Todd King – and to yourself – to "aspire somehow to greatness, dearest." In my humble opinion, one of the most meaningful definitions of greatness is, when your time comes, to go knowing that those you leave behind know exactly how much you cared, as we know how much he cared for us. Let us treasure that gift, and pass it on starting now.

What are you waiting for?