Counsellor’s Corner: Legacy

I remember watching the funeral of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 2000. I was in my mid-thirties and, for the first time in my life, it occurred to me that, at the end of a life (or a chapter in a life), a person’s contributions to the world will be measured and described as their legacy. Trudeau’s legacy could be divided between his champions (he did bring us the Charter of Rights after all) and his detractors (the West sure hated his National Energy Program). In the end, it cannot be denied that the late-prime minister left a lasting impression. He left us a legacy that allows him to rest in either our direct memory or in the historic record. It was an eye opener for me on two levels: first, that all things come to an end (something that I understood logically but hadn’t processed emotionally) and that, at some point, what you have left behind will be measured or judged.

I am a big boy now: almost 55 years old and on the verge of retirement. In fact, this is my farewell Counsellor’s Corner column and the end of a 30 year career in education. Suddenly, I am faced with the idea of my legacy as I shift from one chapter of my life to the next chapter of my life.

This all sounds very dramatic. Quite frankly, it is very dramatic. A legacy is a gift; something handed down, conveyed and transmitted from one person, group or generation to another. I am about to officially become a memory to those I have worked with for over three decades and I hope that I have left a gift worthy of remembering.

But what is my gift? What is my legacy?

These are not easy questions to answer.

I have ruminated on this idea quite a bit over the past few years. Legacy is an important concept in my psyche. I remember watching the movie Saving Private Ryan and breaking into tears (at a time in my life when I didn’t think I was capable of crying) as an elderly Private Ryan, nearing the end of his life, stands in a cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach in France and turns to his wife and says, “Tell me I’ve led a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.” Through gut-wrenching doubt and uncertainty, he is asking for validation. He is asking for confirmation of his goodness, his worthiness to have lived a full life. He wants to know that he has left a righteous legacy. His confusion is driven by the fact that he, as the central figure in his own life, cannot see his own legacy. Why? Because it was offered as a gift to the world and it is the people who received that gift who get to decide on the nature of his legacy.

All I can do is communicate to you what I tried to achieve. Around the same time that I had my ‘Trudeau funeral epiphany,’ I gave my approach to teaching a lot of thought. I came up with a definition of learning:

Learning is the free and open offering of information from a source to a seeker.

The offer is an invitation to learn. I hope that my invitations to learn have been accepted in the spirit in which they were delivered: a spirit of generosity, optimism and hope. Sometimes to get my students to consider my “free and open offering of information,” I have endeavoured to disarm them with kindness and humour.

The offer is necessarily followed by some kind of transmission of ideas. Where I attempted to disarm (or break through psychological barriers) with kindness and humour, I strove to arm those I encountered with information and, dare I say it, wisdom, that would help them feel more complete. I did this by trying to master my communication skills so that the message could be effectively received.

If my definition of learning was to work, my efforts needed to land. The ideas I was conveying – delivered in a spirt of generosity, optimism and hope – needed to be received and accepted. I hope my career in education has reflected my beliefs about the learning process. I hope that I have been able to demonstrate the things that I value the most. I hope that I have left my students and those I have worked with feeling a bit more generous, a bit more optimistic and a bit more hopeful. This is the legacy I hope that I have gifted to those I have encountered.

But, in the end, I don’t get to decide on the nature of my legacy. I – like Private Ryan – can only look back and wonder if I had the impact I had hoped for. I need to gracefully surrender my legacy to the thousands of students and hundreds of teachers I have shared experiences with over three decades. All I know is that I stand on the verge of a new chapter of my life knowing that I have influenced many, and many have influenced me, and the sum total of all these experiences has been profoundly fulfilling.

Sean Dolan taught for 20 years before moving into Guidance and Career Education six years ago. He is currently working as a high school guidance counsellor at St. Marcellinus Secondary School in Mississauga, Ontario.

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