My choice would have an impact far beyond anything I could conceive of, and I sensed that. I had accidentally created the haven I’d craved— needed—when I was young, and if I walked away from it, what did that mean? For me? For others? For the community I’d created?
I have lived accidental life.
For instance, I’d started off my postsecondary “career” with the intent of becoming a physician—public health or paediatrics, ideally. I wanted to help people, yes, and I also wanted a prestigious pathway that was commensurate with my intellect. This is, of course, just a fancy way of saying I wanted an elite, high-paying job that showed off how smart I was.
Thirty years after the fact, what am I? I am a Spoken Arts coach, speaker, writer, curriculum developer, trainer, facilitator, advocate, and Life Coach.
I am a doctor, but not the fun kind (the kind that gets to write prescriptions, is the running joke). I help people, absolutely: in helping people learn to discover and then use their authentic voices to share their thoughts, ideas, passions, and perspectives with the world, I help them feel (and be) empowered to approach life on their own terms. It’s elite (if, by elite, I mean “not many people doing this”); remuneration is respectable, and I get to use my brain non-stop.
Problem is, I didn’t choose this life—not in an active, SMART-goal-style fashion, at least.
I didn’t have the ability to fund a postsecondary education straight out of high school: my father informed me that he wasn’t paying for university (contrary to previous understandings). I hadn’t known this before applying (and being accepted) all over North America. So, it was make money or forget university. The most lucrative job in my area was waiting tables—and this would have been a lovely option, had I any grace.
While I was grappling with my new financial reality (and having to forego university for a few years), I decided to take lessons in Spoken Arts at the regional conservatory. After four months of training and competition, they offered me a job as an instructor in the discipline.
I was nineteen. I was wholly unqualified. I took the job.
What happened thereafter can only be described as an unmitigated miracle: in the next eight years, I built an enormous studio of students, paid for two degrees and three diplomas, covered my own (solo) living expenses, bought a car, and traveled.
There soon came a moment of realization: I needed to make a choice. I had been doing this job as a means to pay for life and fund a future medical career…yet every year that went by, I seemed to go more deeply down the rabbit hole of Spoken Arts and related subjects and activities.
Here was the problem: my success over this period of time was based on community. My job was to teach young people (ages four to eighteen, roughly) how to speak passionately, skillfully, and engagingly. Unwittingly, my studio had been built up around a very specific demographic: the gifted population. Basically, I had drawn students to me that were like me: our particular synergy was predicated on a shared understanding of how our kindred minds worked—how we looked at, and interacted with, the world.
In most students’ cases, this was the first place where they’d ever felt heard and understood. Coming from different schools and areas of the city, through me, they encountered others like them—and fast friendships formed (and, thanks to Facebook, continue to this day). Our coaching relationships went on for years, as I trained them in the art of communication (and, in the early years, I was training myself only moments before).
The most unexpected thing of all? It was the first time I had ever felt heard and understood, too. I’d inadvertently created a community that granted me the grace I had never experienced in my childhood by giving it to others, during their childhoods.
I was at a crossroads. I had wanted to help. I had wanted something that was prestigious and profitable. I had wanted something intellectually engaging.
I’d believed it was medicine.
Yet here I was, facing the reality that I had (entirely accidentally) fulfilled my own goals in the most unexpected of ways.
Should I stay? Should I go?
What was I supposed to do?
To say it was a difficult decision would be…well, a vast understatement. A lifetime of “because you can, you should” rhetoric had me programmed to pursue a profession like medicine. (In other words, not everyone is “smart enough” to become a doctor, so I ought to be grateful— and I must, therefore, carry out “the plan.”) What would it mean if I didn’t go down the path I’d declared to all that I was following?
Maybe they’d think I was a failure. Maybe they’d think I wasn’t good enough to hack it. Maybe they’d “tsk, tsk” in my direction.
Then I looked at the students I worked with— my “kids”, as I called them.
Yes, they were going to grow up and leave me—I was a temporary waystation in their lives. Should I make my life decisions based on them? I mean, it wasn’t like they were going to make their life decisions based on me.
At the same time, I found myself in a position of enormous influence. I was being watched and listened to very carefully. What I did in this moment— whether I followed my head or my heart— or if I could find a livable amalgam of both— was going to affect many people profoundly. My choice would have an impact far beyond anything I could conceive of, and I sensed that. I had accidentally created the haven I’d craved— needed—when I was young, and if I walked away from it, what did that mean? For me? For others? For the community I’d created?
So, I decided to continue down the road less travelled.
You see, I realized that the community I’d built for those kids was the very same sanctuary I needed— and leaving it behind for a socially-sanctioned career path fell squarely into “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”
Nearly thirty years later, I still wonder if I did the right thing, and I wonder what the other path would have looked like. It’s not regret—just curiosity, really. My studio is still about 85 percent gifted, and many are 2e, and I continue to have the privilege of teaching them all to speak their truth powerfully.
If that isn’t helping people, I don’t know what it is.
Brett Elizabeth Spore says
Absolutely loved reading this article! I think my son might enjoy Spoken Arts and I am now going forth to research it further!
Donna Holstine Vander Valk, PhD CPC ELI-MP says
Thanks, and best of luck! Depending on where you live, it could be called “Oratory”, “Elocution”, “Speech Arts”, “Speech Arts & Drama”, or “Dramatic Interpretation”, as well. cheers, donna
What a beautiful journey. Thanks for sharing it with us!