Until a few weeks ago, Liz Murray was a stranger. Then a friend shared a video of her speaking at a university, and it touched a chord within me. While we live in times when inspirational/motivational speakers are becoming commonplace (and often clichéd), the quiet strength and positivity that she radiated drew me to her story. She spoke with clarity and honesty, something that could have only come from the wisdom of authentic experience. Her life story contains innumerable lessons and one of the most striking points was her own role as a “non-traditional student.”
Growing up as the daughter of parents who were trapped in the vicious cycle of drug addiction, Liz and her siblings lived in a household where love meant trying to live with the chaos of not knowing where the next meal would come from. When she became a teenager, her mother was diagnosed with HIV and had to be shifted to a Hospice Centre and her father ended up living in a shelter for the homeless.
Liz literally found herself on the streets, sleeping in friends’ houses, parks, trains and hallways. Her life took a remarkable turn when she realised that education is her key to freedom and her story takes us through her travails as she finally graduated from Harvard. Her book, Breaking Night, and the film, Homeless to Harvard, details her journey. It is highly recommended for readers who wish to further explore her inspirational story.
Liz entered high school at an age when most people would be applying for college. During her search for a school, she recalls how several schools closed their doors due to her age and other factors. She persistently knocked, until the right school embraced her into their fold. In this context, she talked about the challenges of being a non-traditional student. She was beyond the age limit and did not have the luxury of a support system that most traditional students enjoy. There were so many reasons to give up, and, yet, something in her was kindled which helped her rise above her circumstances. While there are many lessons one can reflect on, there are three salient points that can help those of us who might be de-motivated feeling that we are “different.”
One of the obstacles we create for ourselves is the labels we use to define our situation. While she was homeless, living with uncertainty from one night to another, Liz says she did what she had to, without even knowing that her situation was termed as homeless! In that sense, one just did what one had to do, taking one step forward, responding to the need of the moment. As teachers, we see students boxing their own potential when they believe the labels they are given. We also perpetuate these labels and their associations by judging our students.
While one might be clinically diagnosed as a “slow learner” or “dyslexic,” if one believes that is all one is, then one limits oneself. We do not see the strengths we are blessed with as our minds get stuck in our limitations.
Jaya, a student who was diagnosed as “highly dyslexic” in school, is today is an artist and giving back to the community, leading a rich and fulfilling life. While she still cannot read effectively, that does not stop her from living each day, harnessing her strength. She is an asset to herself and to the people around her as she refused to be tied down by the label. She did not let what she cannot do interfere with what she could do.
Obstacles are part of the journey. If we really look at it, an obstacle is primarily a thought that blocks us from seeing the situation as it is. Liz says that her higher purpose of wanting to be in school made her determined to knock on doors in the belief that at some point a door would open for her. When we have a higher purpose, we are not afraid of criticism but it only fuels us to move forward. The journey is to find that hidden spark within each of us. Having had students who despite being high achievers collapsed inside when the first obstacle came, we see that their talent was not fuelled by any spark but by an aggressive overdrive. This aggression can take us only so far. It is the gentle wings of inspiration and purpose that help us transcend the walls within ourselves.
Liz poignantly speaks of the bleakest moments in her life, including the death of her mother. She said at one point a realisation dawned. Bad things happen, but it is not personal. One is a part of the events that unfold, yet, if one takes it as a personal attack by the universe, then that leads to a cycle of negativity. She talks of moments when in her worst times, she simultaneously experienced the richness of life.
As teachers, we have had students who have inspired us by this attitude. A young lady, who had lost her entire family in an accident, bowled us over by the dignity with which she came back to class. While she was struggling with the personal pain, she was also able to see that pain and loss are universal. Faith had taught her to see things from a higher perspective and this fuelled her to go on to pursue her dreams.
It is never too late to ignite the spark within. The world of technology has opened up a vista of opportunities and anyone can be a student today. The definition of a student goes beyond the traditional notions of the classroom. While we are pursuing our own dreams, we are always students of life. If we can be open, innocent and fearless to our vulnerability, life can be the greatest teacher. In Liz Murray’s own words, “Homeless person or business person, doctor or teacher, whatever your background may be, the same holds true for each of us: Life takes on the meaning you give it.” Enjoy your own journey!