Atticus Finch, one of the most well-loved characters in literature, offers timely advice to his young children in To Kill a Mockingbird. As they make their way through this classic text, students in English 9 are challenged to express and reflect on the mentors in their lives.
“It’s not the content, it’s what you are left with.”
Mr. Driscoll, one of the wisest teachers I have ever had, would not look like it from the outside. He could go from funny to dead serious or light to deep in the same sentence. All of his efforts were coordinated to make us better students, and he never got frustrated without reason. His classroom was a place we looked forward to, a place where we knew we would be greeted by a familiar round of “Mr. Driscoll Is So Great” to the tune of “London Bridge.” He was my Social Studies and Language Arts teacher for two years, and I still remember much that he taught. Some pieces of wisdom, like this one, have proved timeless in my life.
It was June, and this meant two things. First, it was the last academic day in seventh grade. Second, and much less exciting, it was our last class with Mr. D. We waited with anticipation for his last words of wisdom, wondering if it would be another Godzilla joke or something really deep and meaningful (or, quite possibly, both). He had us watch what he called “The Most Boring Video Ever Made That Every New Englander Should Watch,” a black-and-white film about loggers in Maine. But that was the best part of him: his ability to give advice that could be interpreted in endless ways, and all of them would be correct and meaningful.
Finally, the stage was set. He said something along the lines of, “You guys realized what the point of this class (Social Studies) was, right? It’s not that you remember the borders and dates of Alexander the Great’s empire, it’s that you must take notes and study. He went on with all the life lessons that we had learned: “ In life, you may not remember every detail, but you remember the ideas, the emotions, the way something made you feel. If you remember the intent or meaning behind the words or action, that is what is important.” At the time, I took this to mean nothing more than the exact words. But again, as I should have known, there was more.
Little did I know then, but one and a half years later, I would be owing part, if not most, of my sanity to this advice.
Rewind back to that classroom. I was twelve, and looking out of a much narrower lens than I am now. I had no idea how hard the next year would be for me. Long story short, I developed a few problems with anxiety. It wasn’t that I worried when things would go wrong, I worried that something would inevitably go wrong, and then what would happen if it did. I had always been a good student, and I was starting to feel the pressure build to keep it up. I mean, I was literally feeling the pressure, as in the pressure that was constricting my skull. The muscles in my shoulder and neck tightened so much that they pulled the muscle around my skull so tight that I couldn’t think for days or a week at a time. I was unable to accept anything less than perfect from myself. I made it through the end of eighth grade, but I was pulling out all the stops. Stress continued to build through the summer, as sitting out many baseball games and playing in a limited role deprived me of my usual stress outlet. I finally came to a conclusion: This was more than I could handle.
Then, the type of unexplainably clear thinking, the type of thinking that kicks in when you have nothing to lose, kicked in. It was remarkably satisfying: I could feel the tension loosening in my neck. I came to an even better conclusion: I needed to stop worrying about all the little details and have more faith in myself. I decided to just try it out. I was nervous to do this because I was afraid of slipping too far and relaxing too much, but I still held myself to high standards. I just stopped worrying without reason to. The results were amazing: I now slept entire nights without tossing and turning and my head was no longer strangled. Even if the minute details cannot be cemented, as long as the meaning was there, I knew I had something going for me– and that is thanks to Mr. D.
“It’s not the content, it’s what you’re left with.” Today, I think about this constantly, and I have changed parts of my life to coordinate with it. I no longer worry about how long my homework will take me until I need to. I try to find meaning in what I learn in my classes, and that helps me remember if I can associate meaning with some detail I need to know.
If you read this, I hope you will take Mr. Driscoll’s advice and forget the exact words you just read, and only remember the meaning you choose it to have. Isn’t that why people write, to leave the reader with the feeling or feelings that they want to share? The best writers can pack the reader with the most feeling in the least writing, and I am obviously not there yet- but thanks to Mr. D, I can try.