What is a Life?

by Rick on March 21, 2021

Gen·ius n1. The tutelary spirit of a person, place, or institution.

—The New Oxford American Dictionary, 2001

What is a life? What’s to become of my child? What is my life to be? What am I supposed to do with myself? Even at the age of 76?

It all comes down to the word character. I don’t mean “character” the way it is most commonly used today in America: a fancy word for “good” or “moral.” I mean the original meaning from the Greek kharacter: the mark that the gods put on your soul at birth. Your character is the YOU that is becoming. Genius is the voice of your character…, and you can trust it. What does that look like? It’s different for everyone.

Introducing Peter Richards

One morning in the early days of fourth grade in my new school, the teacher of my section of fourth grade stood in front of us and said: “Someone has locked all the stalls in the bathroom from the inside, does anyone know who did it?”

Several classmates immediately said: Peter Richards. How did they all know? It’s exactly the kind of thing Peter Richards would do. He was small enough to go in, lock them from the inside, and slip out from under the locked door.

Why did he do this? Because he could and had the imagination, the sense of humor and the determination.

This was Peter at nine-years-old. Thirty-one years later I rediscovered him. He had just published an article entitled “What it Means to be Forty and Still Teaching Ten Year Olds.” I asked him to speak to the faculty at my school. He presented a spectacular vision of what good teaching looks like.

Thirty years later he wrote me this short synopsis of his life. Peter’s character shows through:

Peter’s Story

My first teaching job was at a “pre-prep” boarding school in Massachusetts.   After two years, I commuted my own sentence, and was released, realizing that (1) I didn’t want to teach in a boarding school and (2) I found teaching Middle School boys daily discouragement and torture.

So on to High School.  In the middle of my second year of teaching English, I diverged from the usual and told my classes that, for their next assignment, they could either write a paper on the book we were reading (A Separate Peace, I think) or teach the class something. The “something” could be a construction, a song,  some writing (fiction or non-fiction),  a hobby,  food, their room:  anything that they could talk about for 10 minutes.   I felt it was a gift of an assignment: students could follow their interests and instruct. The choice was theirs.

In an epiphany to me, all (perhaps corporate drones of the future) chose the assigned essay, except for one. I was amazed and discouraged that only one chose to write about an interest: he wrote up his interview with the night watchman at the nearby Electrolux vacuum cleaner factory.  The Electrolux watchman told my student that, frequently, disgruntled customers would, at night,  toss their vacuum cleaners over the chain-link fence surrounding the factory, in an act of defiance and frustration. 

It seemed to me that, by the time they were in high school, my students were stuck,  demarcating “school” as separate from “life”.  Real education:  experiential, observational,  pleasurable, were in the “life” column. School was in the other one.

And so on to elementary school and fifth grade.  One of the “sweet spots” in education, I believe.   8-10 year olds are the BEST.   Choosing an ideal job requires a bit of triangulating, sort of like picking a close friend or spouse or profession.  You go through life and deal with all sorts of people, jobs, experiences and you toss away the disagreeable or the uncomfortable until you get to some place that is satisfying and a good fit.

By the age of 26 I had struck gold and worked with young children for 43 years.

What I love about the job is that my students haven’t yet developed the typically adolescent pose of looking on enthusiasm in front of their peers in school as a vice.

Humor and stories are the two most important supports of my brand of teaching.   When I tell a joke or make some goof-ball statement that everyone knows isn’t true,  there is laughter that is communal and emotionally releasing.

Kids love to sit for stories.

Research shows that when hearing a story in a group, the brain releases oxytocin, the “love drug” that calms and gives a satisfying feeling of community and security.


So, life is the never ending process of hewing to your character and that requires keeping in touch with your genius? It’s listening to, staying true to and expressing your inner self. It’s also a good way of keeping your dopamine and your oxytocin flowing.

Peter has led a good life because he has never not been true to his character, and he kept listening to that voice within.

for more stories of great teachers buy my new book

Life Lessons from Working with Great Teachers

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Marty March 29, 2021 at 9:08 am

Another enlightening post, a good read. I’m stimulated by your posts! Thanks, Rick!

richard westin March 29, 2021 at 9:43 am

According to Kurt Vonnegut (in GALAPAGOS), your soul is the part of the yourself that knows when the brain is acting wrong. I assume it evolves and is not stamped indelibly. Just a comment.

Rick March 29, 2021 at 10:46 am

Yes. I’ve decided that soul, character, spirit, Geist are all different names for the same thing and that Genius, muse, etc. are the voice of our soul–keeping us on track. For me God, Lord, are also words for that same voice. James Hillman gave us a new vision of who we are in “Revisioning Psychology”, and nailed it in “The Soul’s Code.”

Lyn March 30, 2021 at 5:24 am

Thought-provoking and fun to read!

Annie March 31, 2021 at 5:07 am

Sending this to my open school teacher friends! I know they will appreciate it. Thank you Rick.

Elsa Townsend April 3, 2021 at 8:52 pm

I’m glad to learn more about why I love my job: “Research shows that when hearing a story in a group, the brain releases oxytocin, the ‘love drug’ that calms and gives a satisfying feeling of community and security.” I even sensed the flow of oxytocin while reading stories to kids on Zoom! Thanks for another riveting post, Rick!

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