Chapel Talk: Keep an open mind

 English teacher and Crew coach Joe Murtaugh gives us a timely reminder that "It's not where you go, it's what you do when you get there" that makes all the difference.

Not long ago, a sophomore told me it was common knowledge that by the second term of tenth grade, one should have figured out both college major and at least a general career goal. Of course I was dismayed to hear this: this kid already knows where he’s headed, and I’m forty years older than he is and I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up.

There is a kernel of truth buried in that last line relative to my career trajectory. So please bear with me while I spend a few minutes discussing one of my favorite topics: me.

At the dawn of history, as I was finishing my undergraduate degree in English at the University of Virginia (Go 'hoos!)  I was shocked to discover that employers were not banging down my door with job offers. So I came up with a plan: I cobbled together several part-time jobs to fund what I really wanted to do: volunteer as a coach for the then very small UVA club rowing team.  It seemed like a good idea to me. As you might imagine, my parents were less enthusiastic. I became used to hearing the phrase: “colossal waste of tuition.”  

One of my jobs was substitute teaching in the Charlottesville Public School System. I was initially attracted because they paid twenty dollars a day, which, even for the mid-eighties wasn’t very much money for a day’s work. But I enjoyed it, and I reasoned that if I liked being a substitute, the real thing might be even better. I applied and was accepted to the masters’ program at UVA’s School of Education. A very efficient and motivated student can earn an M.Ed in a little over a year.  It took me somewhat longer, but eventually I completed my student teaching, passed the National Teachers Exam and began interviewing for jobs.  

However, a graduate student friend who both rowed and coached at Princeton alerted me to a part-time job opening there and suggested that I consider postponing teaching for a year and apply. I took his advice, and though I later learned I was at least second choice, I was hired.  I moved into a small space off the men’s locker room in the Princeton boathouse, earning a stipend which I might just as well have direct-deposited at the Hoagie Haven. Then a funny thing happened: at the end of the season, a head coach shifted jobs, I applied for the vacancy, and in a classic example of being in exactly the right place at the right time, I was hired. So, my gap year before beginning my career as a high school English teacher became two years, then three, and then eighteen.

About half-way through my time at Princeton, in a rare departure from her typical sound judgment, Katie agreed to marry me. Like most couples, we eventually had a serious “kids” talk: if, when, how many. I’m sure I’m compressing time, but I recall a conversation agreeing that we loved our jobs, the freedom to travel and spend time together. Kids could wait.  So of course, Diana was born about a year later.

This presented us with a child-care dilemma, given that both of our jobs had unpredictable hours which extended beyond the standard six p.m. day-care deadline. We considered our options and decided the best thing would be for one of us to stay home with Diana.  Those of you who know us both will agree with me when I say that if one were to assemble a list of characteristics comparing our relative suitability for caring for a child, Katie would crush me. She’s kinder, more patient and responsible.  You name it, I’ve got nothing on her. However, for practical reasons that I won’t bore you with, it was decided that I would stay at home with Diana. (Ok: Katie makes a lot more money than I do).

So I did something they say you’re not supposed to do: I voluntarily left a job that I loved.

Some background: If you aspire to be a collegiate rowing coach, a head coaching job at Princeton is a pretty good gig. There is opportunity for success, you get to train on the best lake in the world for rowing, and in a happy coincidence, I worked with people who became and remain some of my very best friends. I looked forward to going to work every day.

On top of this, I had no clue how to look after a little kid. I am the baby of my family; I had three older sisters and a mother who took care of me when I was growing up. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even have to make a bowl of cereal for myself until I went to college.

So how did that work out? If you ask Diana, I’m sure she’d roll her eyes and say “every moment was magical.” The takeaway here is that we’ve somehow managed to spawn a ten year old who is more sarcastic than her father, and we’re in big trouble down the road. But I digress. If you ask me, I’d tell you that most of the time WAS magical, and I wouldn’t trade the five years I spent at home with her for any job, including the one I loved and left.

When Diana reached school age, my predecessor as boy’s rowing coach at Peddie left to teach and coach at another school. Barb encouraged me to apply, and I was offered the job. A friend, whose opinion I trust, advised me against accepting. He pointed out that while the girls’ team made regular, successful trips to the National Championships, the boys, though well coached, had not enjoyed the same success.  There was probably a reason for this, and I should expect to lose a lot of races. It turns out he was absolutely right about the last bit.

Coach Murtaugh at the Head of the Charles Regatta with
the 2013 crew team
But he also told me I wouldn’t enjoy coaching at this level after Princeton: “They’re high school kids! They have tiny attentions spans!  The parents, they’re nightmares!” I found those claims to be false. Mainly. In fact, coaching at Peddie is challenging and deeply rewarding in ways I would not have predicted, and I rarely miss anything about collegiate coaching.

Two years after I started coaching at Peddie, a former English department colleague took a leave of absence, and I was offered the chance to teach again. I wish I could say I immediately leapt at this fantastic opportunity to bring my career full circle, but I hesitated. I am embarrassed to say that the best reason I can offer is that I was nervous. I hadn’t been in the classroom in over 25 years, which, even at my age seemed like a pretty long time. On top of that, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a 52 year-old rookie anything. What happened was my awesome English department colleagues coached me through a speedy internship.  In particular, department Jedi Mr. Clements and Mrs. Loughran let me hang out with them, observe, absorb and cover an occasional class. They convinced me this was something I could do.

So, if you’re sitting out there, having suffered through one or more of my less than stellar lessons, thinking, “As an English teacher, Murtaugh is a pretty good rowing coach,” blame them; it’s their fault!

Before you say: “hang on, Murtaugh’s saying that long range planning is an exercise in futility; life is about falling into things.” Stop! Failing to plan is planning to fail. So keep on planning.

Here’s my point:  

Several times during my adult life, I’ve arrived at a fork in the road and chosen the least likely path, the option that was either not in my plans or was way out of my comfort zone. And in each case, the choice I made enriched my life in ways that I never would have realized had I taken a simpler route and followed the path of least resistance. I can’t really imagine what my life would be like if I hadn’t made those choices.

Given that this is the time of the year when quite a few seniors receive disappointing news—such is the nature of college admission--here are a couple of things to keep in mind: now that I have reached an age when, unless I am a genetic freak I’ve likely seen more yesterdays than I will tomorrows, I’ve learned that building a rewarding life has far less to do with where you go than what you do when you get there. It’s all about the choices you make with the opportunities which are available to you.  What it is not about is the choice made by an admissions office.  And sometimes, Plan B can absolutely work out better than plan A. So keep an open mind.