I received a long message from a past student whom I admittedly vaguely remember at best. The subject heading said it all and that’s all I’m going to say about the message. It read: “Thanks for the impact you made on my life.” I have to admit that as I read the message I was stunned and gladdened. It was, and still is, an odd feeling. I feel a fulfillment. Tim Russert died yesterday. I have to admit I was stunned and saddened. It was, and still is, an odd feeling. I feel a void. For years I have said to myself, “If it’s Sunday, “Sunday Morning” and “Meet The Press.” Sunday morning was a time for bagels, lox, cream cheese, humanity, and straight talk. Now, it will be harder to tell time. Fulfilled feeling, odd feeling, but they’re not shallow feelings.

      And, they both got me to thinking. So many of us are masters of the art of our discipline, but have we mastered, really mastered the art of happiness? We are the experts in this or that, but are we experts at life? So many say they are dedicated to their discipline, but are they dedicated to living with purpose and meaning? So many of us have received those professional and academic recognitions, but would we be recipients for an award for getting a fullness out of life? Are we the quintessential happy and purposeful teacher? Do we believe we are having fun at what we surely figure is the best job in the world? Are we the epitome of ebullient contentment, satisfaction, and fulfillment with what we do? Have we made a career of our passion? Are we in love with both our professional and personal life, truly in love with it, enjoying it, and living it with a contagious spirit? Are we loving what we do and doing what we love and loving each student with an unstoppable zest and zeal? Do we enter the classroom each day with a disbelief that we’re really getting paid for doing it? Are we leavened with exuberance for each student? Do we turn what is an all too often sleepy classroom encounter into an adventurous and meaningful encounter? Are we an integral and intimate part of a student’s growing up? Do we stand above our job?

       But, as I learned that fateful early morning on this past September 14th, when I got hit, without any early warning signs, with a massive cerebral hemorrhage, nothing is unstoppable. I have the dream job; I have the fantasy marriage; I have delight with my children and grandchildren; I always have a smile on my face that comes from living with a dynamic immediacy, and having an eagerness to help each student help her/himself become a better informed, better skilled, better talented, and just a plain better person.

      If you want to know how to live your life of teaching, think about what you’d like people to say about you at your retirement party or your funeral—and then “teach backwards” so you can teach forward with that purpose.

      I began thinking about that when I had my epiphany in the fall of 1991, more so when I faced cancer in 2004, and now when I came so close—oh, so close—to dying last fall with a massive cerebral hemorrahage. I remember thinking, as I was almost certain that I was stroking out and would be dead before I hit the floor, “This can’t be happening. It’s too soon. I’ve got too much yet to do. I’m having too good a time loving life and helping others.” During the months of convalescence that followed, I often read the lines of Linda Ellis’ “The Dash” that poetically talked of the true worth of how we spent that seemingly innocuous line between the dates of birth and death carved on everyone’s tombstone. And, I often wondered if I would be seen as I wish to live: an icon of trust, joy, fulfillment, purpose, satisfaction, gusto, empathy, kindness, fun-loving, compassion, belief, faith, and love; as having successfully lived up to my credo of “with malice towards none, with charity for all;” as having been the embodiment of my vision to be that person who is there to help each student help her/himself become the person she or he is capable of becoming. I often thought if my departure would have seemed to others to be too early, an affront, an outrage, an act of cruelty, unfair, premature, unimaginable, absurd, almost obscene, and just not right? Thankfully, no one had the opportunity to speak over me.

      Thinking about what I would want to speak over me, how I would wish to live my dash, helps me to write my credo, paint my vision, sculpt my meaning, forge my purpose, and map them towards my true north. When the end is near, it’s not likely any of us will say, “I wish I’d written one more book” or “why didn’t I get that grant” or “if I only could have gotten that appointment.” Remember, there is no tenure to life. Unfortunately, many of us only begin to realize the value of the time we have after we’ve frittered much of it away in shallow ruts going nowhere important. Knowing how we want to be remembered allows us to forge our personal vision, to write our personal mission statement for being on this planets, and for making a strategic plan for our life. How much wiser would our choices be if we had the wisdom and discipline to regularly ask ourselves whether all the things we do and say are taking us where we want to be at the end?

      Thinking about the plaudits pouring in for Tim Russert, thinking about that encomium from Trish (her real name), I know I write our own story, tell my own tale, and, thus, prepare my own eulogy by the choices I make every day of who I want to be, how I want to feel, and what I want to do.