the day I learned the meaning of life in 10 minutes

In less than 10 minutes, I learned the meaning of life from this 65-year-old man.

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But let’s back up.

For many years I sat behind a desk. I worked for rich people that drove nice cars, lived in humongous houses, and decorated their walls with degrees. I felt stuck, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why or how to escape the quick sand of my life. I mean, being around highly-educated rich people who own lots of cool stuff was supposed to make me happy, right?

I went back to college. I earned a degree in family studies (psychology), simultaneously discovering an uncontainable passion for learning. It wasn’t from books, though, although psychology is fascinating subject matter. My 17 classmates, from every race, religion, socioeconomic status…they were my teachers. As we discussed life experiences week after week, I became completely addicted to learning the how and why behind a person’s happiness and sorrow. It’s complicated, I mean, I could make like Charles Dickens and ramble all day, but it really came down to three things.

People. Human connection. Selflessness.

Graduating from college – earning a 4.0 as a single mom juggling a full-time job – gave me the confidence needed to claw out of the quick sand. I accepted a position with a vocational school, in one of the lowest socioeconomic areas of Oklahoma. My thoughts about vocational school are another blog, but no two days are ever the same and the diversity is unmatched. High school kids spending half a day learning trade skills, adult students returning to school, felons being offered a second chance, retirees following their passion. The scenarios we encounter are numerous and unique.

Last week, I had the privilege of writing bios for 10 Superintendent’s Student of the Year nominees. Five adults and five high-schoolers chosen from 1,280, whose tales of triumph and struggle had me regretting my Wet n’ Wild liquid eyeliner. (Cheapest and best, I’ve tried several.) When Lee Marrs sat down though, I wasn’t even ready. I had seen him around campus many times, curious about this much-older gentleman in a class with people half his age, but kept thinking, “I’ll get to him.”

I open with small talk, congratulations, why do you think you should win. Then I asked what prompted his return to school.

“I was the president and CEO of a successful company for many years and retired. My daughter is a nurse practitioner and knew I had interest in volunteering for a medical organization. She encouraged me to enroll in the medical assisting program.”

Upon further inquiry about his educational background, I learned he had a bachelor’s and master’s degree, and that is something we don’t see often. He talked about post-retirement life and explained his policy of “Never saying no to anything my first year off, and helping anywhere I could until I felt overwhelmed.” But he never got overwhelmed. The more he did, in fact, the more his desire to give back grew. So when he enrolled in the medical assisting program, he mentioned something to his advisor at the end.

“I love my family, I love my friends. But I was golfing and having lunch every day with guys I had known 40 years and needed a new dimension. The advisor recommended mentoring young men, but that scared me. I’ve never been a mentor before.”

Dismissing the idea, he sat down to coffee and his morning paper the next day, and opened it to a story requesting male mentors for a  boy’s juvenile justice center. Taking that as a sign, he pushed his fear aside and dialed the number.

Today, one year later, Lee travels to visit his mentee several times a month. Staff at the “baby prison” as he affectionately calls it, recommended he try to visit twice, but that wasn’t enough. After an initial period of building trust, his 15-year-old mentee relies on Lee to talk him through the tough times, and that requires frequent trips and phone calls.

“When I first started with him, he was getting into trouble constantly. But the more we work together, the more time passes in between infractions. Lots of reminders of what he has to lose, what he’s working towards and encouragement to be a better him.”

Lee has also developed a relationship with his mentee’s mother, who delivered her son at Mabel Bassett Correctional Facility and spent much of her son’s life in and out of prison. Currently out and actively working an addiction program, Lee listens to her guilt, regret, and stresses the importance of venting those emotions to people other than her son. The smallest positive changes, like communication, are traits Lee mistakenly believed everyone already knew.

“The cycle of addiction and crime carries through generations. I’m not a counselor or a savior, but I am someone who cares, listens and offers encouragement. Many times, that’s all people need.

Lee still golfs and lunches with his friends, but these days, they want to hear about his new endeavors. Next month, he will graduate and use his certification to volunteer in a medical clinic for those who can’t afford care. And, ironically, his friends are branching out with their interests, too. Sometimes, Lee said, it’s a matter of getting over fear and watching another person’s life transform to make the change yourself.

But in this case, he adds, two lives have been enhanced greatly. Mostly his.

That big, passionate, outlandish idea you have for changing the world? Do it.

That fear holding you back from said idea? Ignore it.

p.s. Lee is such a humble man (one of many loveable qualities) that when I called and asked permission to write about him he said…Me? Why?