Listening: The True Meaning of Life
I can remember that cold day in February perfectly; I sat in a back room of my high school with my mother, crying as I pulled the hood of my sweatshirt over my head. It wasn’t the first day I’d felt like I didn’t belong, or that I was being called somewhere else. My mother gave me a sympathetic look, and simply said “You have a choice, you know.” Smiling for the first time I had in days, my mother and I talked about what I needed to do, unknowingly changing my life forever.
Late in my junior year, I decided I was ready to move on. I never really enjoyed the parties, the gossip; I never understood the concept of “being a teenager,” as one of my friends told me. They considered a true ‘teen’ to drink, smoke and have sex, while I disagreed. Soon, I found myself ostracized by the people I trusted the most. So, finishing my last two classes to graduate that summer, I walked out of my high school with my diploma a year early. Due to my late decision, though, I was trapped into attending a local community college.
‘Great,’ I thought as I sat down in my first class, looking around at my classmates. ‘I’m stuck with the people who couldn’t get accepted anywhere else. I belong somewhere else…somewhere better. I mean, the average age in my Biology class is 32!’ For years, I had known exactly what I wanted to do with my life, and community college was not in my meticulous plan. The high school friends I still had picked on me, telling me I was wasting my time in a two-year school. They believed nothing important could be learned from someone who couldn’t get into a ‘real’ four-year university. Frustrated and flustered by all of these thoughts, I pouted throughout my classes. For the first week, I refused to talk to anyone, and I was paid the same respect by my classmates. Lectures passed in silence, as I waited to be challenged, waited for a reason to care, and then it came.
I sat in the middle row of my chemistry class and fifteen minutes into the lecture, a girl wandered in to the row behind me. I rolled my eyes as I tried to ignore the commotion she caused pulling her notebook out, but I couldn’t help to notice she brought along someone else; her child. The flushed eight-year-old boy sat quietly next to his mother, sniffling every so often while he drew on a pad of paper. As the lecture came to a close and we began to pack our things, I overheard the mother ask another classmate, “What did I miss? I was going to be on time, but my boyfriend’s already at work and Vincent’s sick this morning, so I had to bring him with me. I had to call in to work so I could stay at home with him.” They continued to talk as they left, but I simply stood by my seat, stunned.
Over the next few weeks, I talked to at least one person every day, listening, and learning, from their stories. A 27-year-old in my biology class already had a General Studies degree from Virginia Tech, but wanted a business degree to get a promotion at the bank he worked at. A 20-year-old in my chemistry class was entering nursing school to get a higher paying job so she could buy the toys her children wanted, now that her boyfriend had left her. A 17-year-old in my English class was homeschooled the year before, and couldn’t wait each morning to learn something new, but wasn’t ready emotionally to leave home for college quite yet. Each story came with its own twists and turns, leaving me in awe.
After that day, I soon came to realize that I wasn’t the one who deserved better; they did. I came to realize that it was a gift to hear their stories. My friends continued to tease me, and still do, but I just smile. I know that I learned something more important than any lecture and any textbook could ever teach me. I learned how to listen, and to believe in the opportunity to learn from someone, everyone, no matter the first impression. On that day, I realized that life isn’t made by the things we are given, but by the moments we take the time to listen.
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