Life as a backup plan

One thing I’ve learned from decades of teaching is perspectives that emerge from my students will never stop surprising me. At 20 years old, all older adults occupy the audience of the student on the stage, and we all ask the same questions. What are you going to do? This week a student told me of their plans.

When the student finished their story, they added, “But I’ve thought about your job, you know? Teaching something you love…Just, sort of, as a backup plan if I don’t get in to […].”

I nodded, surprised but trying hard to hide it, while an undergrad diagnosed my life as a backup plan.

But it got me thinking about paths unexplored, chances missed, other parallel universes where my life is different, rowdier, exciting, perhaps unequivocally not a backup plan by any measure.

Now, I’m pretty old and I’ve done a lot of things. Many of them I could not have predicted while still in college. I did not know I would run half marathons. Or earn a PhD. Or write novels and children’s books. Or learn to play piano at my half-life. Or bake two dozen pies in a year. Or blog for 80 consecutive Tuesdays about a pandemic that would not end. Or meet with my sisters and mom for an hour online every Saturday. Or coach Odyssey of the Mind. Or drive a boat for water skiers. Or swear like a sailor. Or leave my engineering job to teach impossible organic chemistry to thousands of students. I could not have foreseen any of these backup plans when I was very young.

And I have no idea what backup plans await.

Most students are laser-focused on one single goal. They have stated that goal so often, so loudly, with so much conviction to so many people they feel devastated when they change their minds, either by failing a course or admitting to an alternative passion. We must let them change their minds and expand their futures without feeling guilty or otherwise badly about themselves. The whole point of college is to change one’s mind.

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