A Teachable Moment Botched

Time is the school in which we learn — John Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

Yesterday before class, a petite, clear-eyed fifteen year-old announced that she has decided that she doesn’t want to grow old, that she wants to make great contributions to the world, and then die at 60. She added, “Mr. Moore, that means that if that happens, then 25% of my life is over!”

This is what we call in the my business[1] a “teachable” moment, and I botched it. I should have called on Alexander Pope, that four-foot, six-inch[2] colossus:

In fearless Youth we tempt the Heights of Arts,

While from the bounded Level of our Mind,

Short Views we take, nor see the lengths behind,

But more advanc’d, behold with strange Surprize

New, distant Scenes of endless Science rise!

So pleas’d at first, the towring Alps we try,

Mount o’er the Vales, and seem to tread the Sky;

Th’ Eternal Snows appear already past,

And the first Clouds and Mountains seem the last:

But those attain’d, we tremble to survey

The growing Labours of the lengthen’d Way,

Th’ increasing Prospect tires our wandering Eyes,

Hills peep o’er Hills, and Alps on Alps arise!

Although our flowers fade (I too had pretty plumage once!), the world becomes increasingly more interesting as we gain perspective, and as the social preoccupations of adolescence dissipate, the “cool people,” if given the choice, would rather hang with Charles Bukowski than Wink Martindale, with Joan Didion rather than Kim Kardashian.

Kim Kardashian

Kim Kardashian

Joan Ddidion

Joan Didion

But, like I said, I botched it. I turned to of all people Marcus Aurelius and paraphrased the following:

Were you to live a thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that the sole life which a man can lose is that which he is living at the moment; and furthermore, that he can have no other life except the one he loses. This means that the longest life and the shortest life amount to the same thing. For the passing minute is every man’s equal possession, but what has gone by is not ours. Our loss, therefore, is limited to that one fleeting instant, since no one can lose what is already past, not yet what is still to come — for how can he be deprived of what he does not possess?

Like, I said, I botched it. I told her and the rest of the students to think lineally only so far ahead that they can salvage more of the present for their enjoyment, in other words, to get that rough draft out of the way early Saturday morning so it won’t be squeaking like a wobbling wheel in the back of your mind all day. But I told them not to think too far into the future, not to dream about their freshman year at Duke or their wedding day or their future contributions to humanity.

I write this as my beloved is receiving a blood transfusion and have come myself to live the advice I gave those students yesterday. It’s always now. The future is not ours. The past is kaput. I hear a bird’s staccato chirp outside my open window on this gorgeous Saturday and wish him or her the best.


[1] Schools, alas, have taken on the corporate model, though they still give lip service to the “family” metaphor.

[2] 1.37 meters for my European readers

3 thoughts on “A Teachable Moment Botched

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