I got word that one of my favorite teachers from high school had recently passed away from his battle with cancer. In my younger years there were a handful of individuals who affected me in a very positive way at a critical time in my life. One of the most memorable teachers had given me two great lessons that I still appreciate more than 20 years later. My tribute is a glimpse into how I learned them.
As a teenager I had struggled with depression and direction. There were nights where I had no idea why life existed, or why people continued living the meaningless lifestyles our society perpetuated. At that time I needed support, direction, meaning, and challenges. When I signed up for my Junior year classes in high school I decided to take as many social sciences as I could fit in, one of them being Sociology with a man named Steve Younk. I figured learning about culture would be a great compliment to the psychology class I was going to do so I settled in. I was hoping to understand society and culture more, and I did. But I got far more than that.
Throughout that semester I learned about the 5 institutions of society (Government, Religion, Economy, Family, and Education) culture (values, norms, and beliefs) and how they build and influence. But I also gained two other invaluable experiences. I felt like I could dig deeper and understand more about assumptions made in these cultural influences. As the semester went on I felt challenged. Challenged to understand more, to connect the meaning to every day life, and think critically.
One crucial thing I needed at that time was to be challenged. When I had something to try and achieve, the meaninglessness that I was muddling through began to dissolve. I could achieve something in my educational experience and have it be practical. I felt like I wanted to get the best “A” in the class I could and felt excited to learn and apply it in my daily life. This was the strongest experience with critical thinking I had in high school and it served me very well when I went to college. Studying as much chemistry, math, and religion as I did, it took a critical eye to be able to do that and for that preparation I am grateful.
The second thing I took away from this Sociology class was how to examine myself. I remember Mr. Younk had challenged the class one day with a question,
“What have you learned?”
Seems pretty simple on the surface right? But no, there is more to it. We were told that to properly answer the question we’d have to be able to first be able to communicate what we knew prior to the class in terms of society and culture. We’d have to know our influences, our sources of understanding, and talk about coming in contact with new information. We’d have to explain how we encountered new theories and ideas and whether or not we agreed with them and why. To be able to explain ‘what we learned’ required us to know ourselves well enough to not only have an awareness of these lessons but articulate it well enough to communicate the change we experienced. That required a significant level of self awareness, especially for a teenager.
Mr. Younk had suggested having that as our final exam for the semester, just one question. I prepared for it, but it never unfolded that way. We had a final exam that was much easier, more related to text book concepts and past exams. But I’ll never forget the importance of that question because it has resonated with me through every experience I’ve gone through. I examine how I’m different after graduating high school, college, and being a parent. I examine how I exceed my goals in the gym after changing my routine. I examine how I’m different after going through a hardship, a job, or achieving something new.
If I had to distill this into a smaller bit of wisdom, I’d put it this way:
How are you different now, after going through what you just did? What did you gain or let go of? Where were you and how is now different from then? What was the lesson, the achievement, and in what way are you changed?
That is how to apply the lesson, examine yourself today vs. yesterday. This year vs. last year. This job vs. last job. How are you better? What are you doing to learn more and get better? We never know how far our influences will travel, I’d doubt Steve Younk had an idea this blog post would be written. I think the best way I can pay tribute is to share these two lessons and hope that it inspires others. I hope people can challenge themselves to be better than yesterday.
Here is a link to the guestbook for Steve Younk’s page on Caring Bridge. Consider signing it or leaving a donation on Caring Bridge. Or at least look at it to see how valuable a teacher he was and how much impact he’s had in this corner of the world: