Hindsight and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

I blog for myself – to clarify things. When other people read posts and find them useful, hey – that’s a bonus. My fellow SD42 administrator Kristi Blakeway commented on the post I published Saturday that has made me think. She said this:

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It immediately got me thinking. The human mind’s love for stories as a way of making sense of life is pretty well known, and stretches back to the beginning of time. What about that love for stories though – do they always help us see things more clearly?

Do things always make sense in hindsight? Or do we blot out the possibility of other options to tell ourselves that there is no way we could have made any other choice? To make the present seem preordained certainly allows us to sleep easier. But could things have unfolded otherwise? Do we tell ourselves stories – the ‘in hindsight this all made sense’ – to make sense of things that seem out of place?

To make it a little bit more concrete… Sometime in the middle of my junior year of college a buddy called me up and told me he was volunteering in a middle school classroom a couple days per week – was I interested? I was a history major and hadn’t given much thought to education. But a volunteer opportunity was a good thing on the resume, and it might be fun. (Twenty-one year old Karl was pretty cynical, huh?) So off I went.

It was fun. Middle schoolers are a handful, but the individual tutoring I got to do was fun, and interacting with kids was really rewarding. Fast forward 1.5 years later to graduation – my friend and I continued to volunteer at the school. Some of the students even came to our graduation – I think we even got a shoutout in the speech our college president gave because of their presence at the ceremony!

Those 1.5 years in the classroom demonstrated enough interest, and the beginnings of a skill set, that I was accepted as an education volunteer in the Peace Corps. I had the privilege of spending two years teaching in northern Namibia. When I returned to the US, I still wasn’t sure on my path. On a whim, through the Peace Corps newsletter, I applied for a job doing environmental education on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Given that both the bosses were returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs), and knew that RPCVs would work long hours for not a ton of pay, they were interested in me. Two years of environmental ed – and four years in education – was enough to get me into my teacher training and masters program at Stanford. (I can tell you it wasn’t my college grades that got me in.)

That led to the teaching job I had at Hillsdale High School. Fast forward a few years and an RPCV I served with told me I should apply for the MERIT program. The summer of 2011 was a head-first dive into the world of student-centered tech integration, and it was on. That led to Twitter, which was how I met my wife. MERIT also led to edcamp, which was how I got involved organizing edcamps and developed a belief in myself as a leader in education. Twitter was also how I got introduced to Grant Frend, who helped me as I applied for jobs in School District 42. Where I work now.

And yes, all that makes sense in hindsight. How could I have made other choices? It all seems clear.

Except that I applied for a summer fellowship to spend six weeks in South Africa with the National Endowment for the Humanities in the summer of 2011. I didn’t get in. Had I gotten in, I wouldn’t have done MERIT. What then?

What if I hadn’t said yes to that middle school volunteering opportunity in the fall of 2000? Would I even be in education?

I don’t know. I completely agree with Kristi’s comment – it all makes sense if you follow the string backwards. And to be clear, all the decisions that I made were the right ones: I love the life I get to live. Is that part of the reason all those choices make sense in hindsight – my privileged position in the world? But it could have gone other ways. I’m glad it didn’t, but it could have. What then? Would I be saying the same thing – that I ended up where I ended up and it all made sense in hindsight?

Clearly, I don’t have answers, but it was fun to start to parse all this out. Thanks, Kristi, for making me think on this for a while.

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