The Hardest Things I’ve Learned: Intro

From age 18-22 I wrestled with a spiritual, psychological, emotional and social break down that I now believe, with the benefit of hindsight, stemmed largely out of a realization that everything I had been working so hard for had nothing to do with living life well.  Around the middle of senior year of high school, after I had “gotten in to a good college,” I began to ask some questions about my lifestyle and purpose:

Why had I studied so hard? My teachers and parents said that I needed to get A’s so that I could get into a good college. Questions I never asked but should have: Why did I need to get into a good college?  What do you mean by a “good” college?

Why had I played three sports almost every season with nary a break in between? Because it was fun? Truly, sports stopped being fun for me after 6th grade. But I was of the mindset that since I could do it, I should do it. Because I used to play soccer, basketball, lacrosse, or volleyball I should always play them. Also, I should play sports so that I could have a good resume to get into a good college.

I remember losing touch with my little brother, to whom I had been so close growing up, as soon as I entered 7th grade. “Come out and shoot hoops and play with me?” he would ask, standing just at the threshold of my bedroom door. Without looking up from my homework, I’d reply pretentiously, “No, I’ve got to study.” My response became so immediate and unyeilding that he stopped asking. I remember having to skip church with my family to go play a soccer game in Duluth or Lawrenceville or Fayettville. What insane system was I a part of that as a 7th grader I felt like it my history homework took prescedence over my relationships with my family? How did a sporting schedule–something that was supposed to be “play”–turn in to a requirement that overrode my spiritual development?

What crazy expectations was I meeting when I slept only 6 hours a night (when most teenagers need between 8-10) my sophomore, junior, and senior year because I was so busy doing homework and engaging in scheduled extra-curricular activities that I couldn’t go to bed until midnight?

Last year, I saw the documentary movie Race to Nowhere, and it opened my eyes to why I entered such a desolate period between 18 and 22. As I questioned my purpose, and I had come to understand that mine, up to that point, was superfluous. I didn’t know anything about how to take care of myself or be a contributing member of society, and this was really frightening.

I lacked the following essential skills when I entered college:

1) How to prioritize my time. In high school, I never had to prioritize because my entire life was scheduled by someone else from 6:00 am until midnight nearly every day. Technically I “chose” to engage in all those activities, but choosing to play basketball because it was fun turned in to choosing to be on the team because that is what I did. That’s not prioritizing.

2) How to budget my money, invest, and save. The blessing of not having to work or pay for anything myself turned in to a curse when it came to managing my money. I didn’t know how much it cost to live or how much I should spend on entertainment. I was too busy studying or engaging in extra curricular activities–for none of which did I have to pay– to have a job. I never paid for anything out of my own pocket until I graduated.

3) How to cook for myself and choose foods that would nourish my health. My dad famously tells the story that when I was 13 I tried to make him a frozen pizza for dinner. Never having done anything so domestic in my life up to that point, I forgot to take the cardboard off the bottom of the pizza and cooked the pizza onto the cardboard.

4) How to rest. I did not know that resting was different from sleeping until about 4 years ago. This may have been one of the best lessons I’ve learned, but one of the hardest to practice.

5) How to live mindfully. I didn’t enjoy most of my endeavors as fully as I could have because they were activities to be checked off my to-do list. Go to basketball. Read English homework. Write paper. Call Friends. No one taught me to savor the moments– to be fully present to each moment. That wasn’t important– “getting it done” was.

6) How to live spiritually. Even though I attended a Christian high school and was part of a family that went to church regularly, I never understood the importance of living a spiritual life. I thought spirituality was for retreats– God only showed up when you went away into the mountains. I now believe that my lack of understanding in this area contributed the most to my tough time as a young adult.

7) How to be an engaged citizen in my community: Everything I did until I went to college was for myself. I played sports and studied so that I could succeed. I even participated in community service to bump up my resume. I never watched the news, read the news paper, knew about local, US, or global issues or current events, researched a politician, or volunteered for the sake of volunteering.

I entered college very prepared to succeed on an academic level. I certainly cannot fault any of my teachers for that. Boy, I knew how to write papers and read long texts and annotate. But I had no idea how to live outside of the academic realm.  This is one of the problems I would like to fix in the school system in which I work. The unspoken curriculum that we teach is very powerful, and right now our unspoken curriculum is not teaching kids how to be productive and healthy adults.  Currently, we prepare students to be academic working machines–machines who have no concept of how to be whole people… citizens…humans.

The next set of blog posts I will start to explore seven of the hardest lessons I have learned that I wish I could have learned in high school instead.

This entry was posted in A Sustainable Life, Education. Bookmark the permalink.

41 Responses to The Hardest Things I’ve Learned: Intro

  1. Maryellen says:

    Love this post. Your vulnerability impresses me. I wish I could have been there to help you. . .

  2. Jennifer says:

    Great and very thoughtful post, peyten! These are great things to be thinking about and good questions to be asking.

  3. sydney says:

    I love that you wrote this. As I’ve reflected on middle school and high school I came away with many of the same feelings/deficiencies. It’s a lot of why I want to be in education – there is so much more to life than academics: Confidence in oneself (the whole self), and living in an intentional way were a few of the things that I felt I had to “teach” myself and really work on later in life than I’d have liked. I’m inspired by your openness and self-awareness. Cheers!

    • dobbsep says:

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad (and sad) to know that you had similar feelings. I think you’re exactly right about the idea of the whole selfe and living intentionally. That idea of living mindfully and intentionally is something I’m still working on right now.
      I wonder how much of that has to do with the school culture/curriculum and how much of that has to do with emotional/brain development. Sometimes I wonder if I would have been capable, in terms of brain development, of learning the lessons I wish I had learned in high school. Anyone know anything about that?

  4. @mmhoward says:

    I have so many praises, comments, questions, and thoughts. But all are better expressed in person. Such wise, thoughtful, and honest words about a topic we have discussed many times as friends and as colleagues. You have given texture to a tension many of us felt (then) and feel (now) as we seek to do what’s best for the children in our care.

    Your post will inspire awareness and spark action, I suspect. What a blessing that you now “live life” in a classroom…where you are most definitely creating a climate for your students to live life in ways that are fulfilling, meaningful, and difficult in all the right ways.

    • dobbsep says:

      Hey Megs,
      Thank you for your comment! I worry so much about how I can be so hypocritical in a classroom— saying that learning is the most important thing one day, and then getting so zoomed in to a text or lesson that I know students leave the classroom having the spoken lesson and the unspoken lesson clash.

      I struggle most as a teacher with how to keep the values I hold most dear as priorities while endeavoring to “fit” into a system that in many ways runs counter to those values. Is it possible, do you think, to change the system?

  5. Pingback: Edublog Nominations « Quantum Progress

  6. Pingback: “Fallor ergo sum” – St. Augustine, 1200 years prior to Descartes « It's About Learning

    • dobbsep says:

      Its funny. Your link to my post, led me to read your post, which then led me to read Tim McCauley’s post which stemmed from a comment on your blog. I think so much of what we’re doing in learning is through the links we establish and the paths we choose to follow. I intended to reply to your comment, but then I found another path, which led me back to where I began so I could begin anew with fresher eyes and a firmer ground.
      I wonder if coming back to school as a teacher is a way of begining anew as a learner- with fresher eyes and a firmer ground…..and I wonder how we can help our students start that process earlier?

  7. Grant Lichtman says:


    What a great list of thoughts, and now I know there is a book in your future. I remember that you had kind words after reading The Falconer, and I can tell you that the start of my process of first teaching and then writing every bit of that material was exactly what you wrote about here. I sat down one day (lay down on my couch actually) and wrote out the syllabus of what I wished I had learned in school that I had found important in my success and happiness, and that of others, in subsequent years. So keep track of, and expand on these thoughts! Someday you will teach and write about them. I did not write my book to make money or get famous (have succeeded in both of those things not happening), but you will get those great ideas and thought out for a few others to enjoy. I look forward to reading your upcoming blogs!

    • dobbsep says:

      Thank you for your comment–it certainly inspired me to get back on the writing horse this week. Sometimes I wonder if the firmly built wall of the educational system–against which I often feel myself pushed– could ever come down and be rebuilt in a way that is more positive for learning and life. I’m hoping that thinkers and writers like you and Bo Adams and John Burke and Anna Moore and Dana Notestein and Jill Gough can help to do just that. Thank you for the encouragement—publishing world, here I come!

  8. Pingback: One of the Hardest Things I’ve Learned: How to Feed Myself | Superfluous Thoughts

  9. Pingback: One of the Hardest Things I’ve Learned: How to Prioritize My Time | Superfluous Thoughts

  10. Spence says:

    Peyten: Someone sent me a link to your blog, where I found this very thoughtful piece. Much of what you wrote resonated with me. I went through a similar time of crisis not long after graduating from Virginia. However, I wonder if this is not a normal–and healthy–part of growing up? In particular, I have spent much time thinking about how best to serve my brother and sister (23 and 21) as they approach this stage in life. My first instinct is to shield them, yet I realize how formative this period of uncertainty was for me. It led me to switch jobs, and leave the country for a few years, and those were some of the best decisions that I’ve made. Maturation, and the trials that enable it, are good things.

    At any rate, it’s great to see that you’re thriving at the old school! It would be great to catch up sometime.

    • epdwilliams says:

      So sorry I haven’t replied! Great to hear from you. Hope you’re continuing to do well. I totally hear you– I agree that the maturing and the difficulties in it have been literally life changing, but I wish that I had been able to “mature” a lot earlier and with a lot more scaffolding. 🙂 I hope that we can change the way education happens by helping kids to have these maturation experiences in high school through more problem based learning.
      Thanks for reading and prompting my thinking. P

  11. Pingback: CHANGEd 60-60-60: CONTRIBUTE « Toward Wide-Awakeness

  12. Pingback: The Hardest Things I’ve Learned #2: How to Manage My Money | Superfluous Thoughts

  13. Teri says:

    I just finished reading The Generosity Factor, which teaches about living a life of significance. I think you would enjoy reading this, as well.

  14. Pingback: Transforming My Mind for God -

  15. Kimberly says:

    WOW! I am 40 years old you basically just summed up MY high school and college career. I cannot blame my parents b/c they honestly thought that they were “providing” for me and I must thank them as I did graduate with 2 degrees (BA in Elem, Ed. & Masters in Math & Science Ed.) with zero debt; but, I did not have many skills you mentioned for the “real world!”

    • epdwilliams says:

      Thanks for your comment. I struggled a lot with who to “blame” for my confusion after high school, but I’ve come to realize (like you) that it’s more about culture. There is a tension between what my culture valued in school vs. what it values outside of school, and I felt completely blindsided by the fact that for years people I trusted had been telling me (and they believed this too) one thing, while the world, when I got there, told me something completely different.
      I wonder how we might be able to slowly incorporate more real world work into the school world– perhaps through PBL and real world problem solving we’ll get there!

  16. Pingback: Thing #4: Implications of Blogging — Gamble's Rambles

    • epdwilliams says:

      Thank you for your comment. I think that my blog has really helped me in my reflection on my teaching practice. I WISH I had kept this blog when I was a first year teacher, but I am so glad I have started it now. Even though I don’t write as frequently as I wish I could, I think the practice of reflecting every now and then on parts or the whole of my practice–and seeking public input– has been one of the most valuable professional development tools I’ve had!
      Good luck with your blogging.

  17. Pingback: Thing #4: Blogging Begins with Reading | Just Keep Swimming

    • epdwilliams says:

      Thank you for your comment! I am glad you liked the comment stream. I’m sorry I have been late with my commenting….summertime sometimes becomes downtime! I’m always very flattered that people have not only taken the time to read my blog, but also decided to comment as well. I find that I really learn from what folks have to say back, and that dialogue- as you mention in your post- is one of the most fruitful things I’ve found about blogging.

  18. Diana says:

    I was fortunate enough to have very grounded parents who took the time, and foced me to see, the big picture and healthy balance of life. However, I struggle with this in my students. I can see them getting bogged down in the academics, sports, performances (stressed by their parents, other teachers, administrators, friends, socitey, etc.) and losing site of life. None of them know how to do life skills that have been put on the back burner like: how to wash their clothes, write a check, value of a dollar, give a good handshake, eat appropiriatly, speak professionally, how to act under pressure of in a new environment…I could go on and on. I have taken time out of my cirriculum to go over the items listed above in hopes that would exit my class with at least a few life skills thay lacked.

    • epdwilliams says:

      I think personal finance still is a huge area where schools should really change the math that they teach. So many people are in debt- credit card and otherwise- or haven’t saved enough to retire, and I think that had they had more personal finance classes in high school, perhaps along side the algebra/statistics/calculus classes, I wonder if our culture would be in such a financial predicament….
      Thanks for your comment.

  19. Pingback: Ed thoughts - Blogging in Education – Thing 4

    • epdwilliams says:

      Morgan KS,
      Thank you so much for your comment. I think it is interesting that so many people have really resonated with the idea that school should teach both what we currently focus on (the academic side) but that we should also make sure to have the preparation for life part as well.
      Good luck with your blogging!

  20. Pingback: Marketing Rocks

    • epdwilliams says:

      Thank you so much for your comment. I think it is interesting that so many people have really resonated with the idea that school should teach both what we currently focus on (the academic side) but that we should also make sure to have the preparation for life part as well.
      Good luck with your blogging!

  21. Pingback: Thing 4: Blogging about blogging (how meta…) | Oh, come on now. Thing 4: Blogging about blogging (how meta…) | Just another site

    • epdwilliams says:

      Thanks so much for your link on your blog and for reading mine. Good luck as you figure out your blogging purpose- soapbox, info, education, or otherwise!

  22. Pingback: KOINONIA - Thing 4

    • epdwilliams says:

      Dear peytonmosher,
      Thanks so much for your comment. I am so glad that you enjoyed my blog post, and I am even more glad that my post sparked some good discussion. I think that the best part of blogging is the discussion- both written and non- that comes from the writing. Thanks for reading and linking!

  23. Pingback: Thing 4: Ideas for using blogs with young learners | Truer-than-True

  24. Pingback: Thing # 4 Blogging: Implications for teaching in 2013 | room313chatter

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s