Sunday, June 16, 2013

Cromwell, I Charge Thee

A couple of days ago, Mr. Cation got his second master's degree, a whole bunch of students from my second year of teaching got their bachelor's degrees, and a week ago even more students from my fifth and seventh years teaching got their high school diplomas. It's funny seeing all these graduation pictures pop up on social media, and then thinking back to some of my own graduations long ago. My high school was huge enough and I was unremarkable enough that I didn't win any of the senior standouts, but in my very tiny junior high's eighth grade class, I was voted "Most Likely to Succeed." Here's the photo evidence:

Really bad scan of the yearbook's already tiny, blurry picture. 

The yearbook staff had us pose for the photo holding fistfuls of dollar bills to represent our future success. In retrospect, this is ironic, as teaching high school science is not exactly the path to luxury; in fact, it's pretty much the opposite. In contrast, my male counterpart for that award went on to get a Ph.D from Princeton and do his post-doc at Stanford -- certainly more fitting of the typical definition of success! Sometimes I wonder if I should have been more ambitious in my career; what if I had decided to go into research, or actually gone to medical school the way Asian kids are supposed to do? I could have gotten depressed about this, but then I had two helpful thoughts:

  1. There are no such things as middle school reunions, so I don't need to worry about showing up decades down the line without fistfuls of money. 
  2. My chosen career path isn't exactly glamorous or lucrative, but I've had the privilege of working closely with many bright young minds over the years, inspiring them to pursue STEM fields (quite a few of my former students even went on to major in chemistry-related things!), or even just to use their brains more, helping them work through personal issues...and of course, encouraging them to let their geek flags fly!
Obviously, thought #2 is the more helpful thought. When I hear from former students, and when I look back at the end-of-the-year notes they've written me, I'm reminded that these relationships, while not financially successful, are no less important than doctoral research at a prestigious university. And really, I shouldn't be surprised that this is what I ended up doing, as I had a great role model in this. My dad (whom I've written about before as an inspiration for my sewing) got his own Ph.D in chemical engineering at Columbia, but chose a less intense, much less prestigious (and therefore lower-paying) job that let him work from home when I was growing up. This allowed him to spend so much quality time with us kids, teaching us to bike and rollerblade and play tennis, building forts and treehouses with us and showing us how to use power tools, reading to us at night and practicing the Socratic method during dinner, and generally showing us how much he loved and cared for us.

That's not to say that dads who work outside the home don't do the same, but when I talk to my students and hear how absent or busy their dads are, it makes me all the more grateful that my father showed us in a very real way that relationships are more important than ambition. I took his presence in our childhoods for granted at the time, but I know now how unique his choice was in a time when stay-at-home dads weren't the new hip thing. Without his influence, I wouldn't have my love of finding out how things work, my appreciation for literature and art and music, or my confidence in being unique (although that last one took a bit longer to learn). Although my mom taught me how to use a sewing machine, my dad was the one who equipped me mentally to teach myself the art of dressmaking. He gave up a lot to pass on that DIY mentality to me.

So, on this Father's Day, I quote Laura Ingalls Wilder quoting Shakespeare in her essay on ambition: "Ambition is a good servant but a bad master. So long as we control our ambition, it is good, but if there is danger of being ruled by it, then I would say in the words of Shakespeare, 'Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition, for by that sin fell the angels.'" (These Happy Golden Years)

And hey, the eighth grade standouts story has a happy ending! Besides being voted "Most Likely to Succeed," I was also voted...

They had us pose with house-painting tools...?

I think that one worked out much better in the traditional sense of the award, as I'm pretty sure most of what goes on on this little bloggy blog could fall under the definition of art. Or at least arts and crafts. Okay, so maybe just crafts, but you know what I mean.

It's too bad they didn't have a category for "Most Likely to Become Obsessed with Cats." I would've owned that award.

Walnut did not want to wear the graduation cap. Look at that face of dread!
Can you tell? He's actually sticking his tongue out at the impending cap!
His whole body is just seething with resentment here. 


  1. What a great post! Success should not be measured in dollars but in level of happiness anyway! And what a great man your dad must be!

  2. Teachers are so important, and it's clear from all your posts that you are very committed and passionate about your work. That's amazing, especially considering what a tough career teaching is! I'd say you've had plenty of success :) Your dad sounds like a wonderful person, I really admire people who can resist societal and self-imposed pressures to do what is really best for them and their loved ones.

  3. i had the most wonderful teachers and my science teachers were the best! thank you for the thoughtful and inspiring post.

  4. I love this post, and it's so funny to me that the middle school yearbook propmasters decided that "Beret + Paintbrush = Artistic." :)

  5. I think you are definitely living up to the "most artistic" vote! (I was voted as "most creative" in my tiny High School class.) And success can be measured in many ways besides cash. =)

    You have a great dad! My dad allowed me to finish High School in the same place I started it before moving my family for the upteenth time - he commuted 90 minutes one-way during my senior year. I will forever be grateful for that.

    Congratulations to Mr. Cation on his new degree! Such adorable Walnut photos!

    ~ Brooke

  6. I've read and enjoyed your writing for months now. In my mind, by any criteria that should count as important, you are a brilliant and successful lady.

  7. It's so strange to see your name as "Cynthia"!!!! I've been referring to you as "Cation Designs" for the past two years LOLOLOL

  8. Wow! love this post!
    Thought you might find this interesting, it's a lotr knitting pattern:

  9. My dad did kind of the same thing-decided to be a professor and have every summer off to play with his kids instead of a wealthy higher up at a company. And I know that my siblings and I have gained so much from that decision. And IMHO teaching is one of the best professions in existence because it shares the knowledge that we as humanity have accumulated. Of course, that comes from a future teacher!

  10. The encouraging teacher is one of the best things to be. I'm not sure how it feels from the other side, but students sure do appreciate those teachers for years to come! I just overheard some students in a train, two asking another what on earth was it like to study philosophy, which she answered and said she had had a great philosophy teacher at Grammar School, and I thought, that sounds like V., and she went on to name him.
    While I do not study philosophy, I think I certainly owe a lot to Mr. V., in the realm of thinking, and his wife my art teacher in the realm of creativity, and it's just so great to know I'm not alone in that.

    This story comes across much less powerful in this roundabout internet way than it was when I told it to my sister who went to the same school. But the point is, you've most probably succeeded wonderfully already, and the photo with handfuls of money is probably about as much a measure of success as that photo with house-painting tools is a measure of art. ;-)

    Also, congratulations to your husband, and your students, and your dad, and you.

  11. What a lovely story. I still remember with great fondness a handful of special teachers who really left an impact on me. Congratulations to you all.


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