"What is the Meaning of Life?"
This existential question has plagued man for centuries, yet no one has been able to answer it with a one-size-fits all answer. And that is because it simply cannot be answered with one generalized sweeping response. We, as humans, no matter our culture, religion, age, gender, economic status or educational level, have most likely, at some point, asked ourselves, "Why am I here? What is the reason for my existence? What is my purpose? Why do we suffer? What does true happiness look and feel like?" and on and on. We most often conduct this search for meaning, when confronted with pain, suffering, or heartache - on any scale.
At the age of five, a young boy suffered heartache when he had an encounter with death and asked himself this very question. At the age of eight, he came to his own conclusion about the meaning of life, or lack thereof. At the age of fourteen, he wrote about this experience and read it aloud in his required public speaking class. I would share with you what he wrote, but because it is so personal, I will write just a bit. But first, a bit of background to put it into context.
It was early August of 2016. Like many days that summer, it was hot, humid and steamy, with temperatures approaching 100 degrees. The kind of day where your clothes stick to you, your sunglasses won’t stay on your nose, and you can see the steam rising from the pavement.
Miguel (not his real name), a slight boy with smooth brown skin, big brown eyes and an easy way about him, sat in a small, bare boned classroom in an old brick building in the heart of inner city Lawrence, a large poverty stricken city in MA, 30 minutes north of Boston. He was one of nearly sixty, fourteen year-old, incoming high school freshmen who were required to participate in a mandatory two week training institute before entering the school.
Some eager, some timid, these bright-eyed boys and girls sat at worn, old desks in an even older building. The three-story brick structure, with its southern exposure that allows the blazing afternoon summer sunlight to pour in, had formerly been a fully operating school, but closed many years ago. In 2003, the tired, rundown building was rehabbed and converted into what is now a private, non-profit, Catholic, college-prep, co-ed high school. In 2004, the school opened its doors to its first class.
There is a certain humility, and pride, about the space, both in its structure and its inhabitants. The austere surroundings allow for little distraction and the white linoleum floors are always, quite literally, squeaky clean, thanks to Leo. The entire school is impressively clean and has been known to cause a simultaneous nod of the head and raise of an eyebrow or two, from visitors. The gymnasium, located in the windowless basement, doubles as the auditorium and triples as the special event venue. The conversion from gym to auditorium entails pulling metal chairs from the rolling rack and placing them on the floor in neat, orderly rows. The cafeteria, well, it’s just a cafeteria with a singular identity, but equally as simple, with smiling lunch ladies doling out pizza, chicken fingers, and fruit along with the occasional salad. Wouldn't you rather eat a chicken finger than a cucumber if you were fifteen?
On that steamy summer day, Miguel, and the rest of the students sitting in class were dressed in the required uniform - long pants, a shirt (short sleeves were acceptable, fortunately), and a tie if you were a boy. Neither sandals nor sneakers were acceptable. As temps increased, attention spans decreased and the notoriously temperamental HVAC system seemed especially moody that day. Standing at attention, in the corners of each room, stood tall upright fans, their rotating blades frantically spinning like propellers at lightning speed, working overtime, trying in vain to offer relief to both the kids and the instructors.
At one point, I heard the sound of rolling wheels coming down the hall. There went the dean of students, pulling behind him, a large white cooler full of frozen Popsicles. He stopped into each classroom and once the over heated students realized it was not a mirage, they dove in enthusiastically. Give any of those kids food and you’re their hero for life. As he passed by my office, I yelled, “Hey, Carlos. Might you spare one of those colorful frozen sticks for this withering gal? Orange, please, if you have it.” He was then, my hero, too.
While most of the city’s teens were outside and restless, looking for something to do, Miguel and his sixty pubescent cohorts were inside learning how to make small talk with adults. Over the course of two weeks they would learn how to shake hands, look someone in the eye, tie a tie, manage their emotions, communicate effectively, the importance of accountability, and many more soft, as well as hard skills.
You see, these kids were readying themselves to begin the journey of beating the odds – completing high school, getting a college education, and breaking the cycle of poverty. They were readying themselves for opportunity - because it was knocking – and they needed to be prepared when they opened the door.
On varying levels, Miguel and the others understood that sacrificing a bit of summer fun, sweating and studying indoors for ten days, surrounded by four walls, three of which were pale blue, wearing long pants, sans Adidas, and pretending to be answering a telephone using a banana (and then afterwards, eating it), was a small price to pay if the return on that investment would change their lives forever. Odds are, it would. And it would pay off in spades. Without this small sacrifice, they also understood that Mom, Dad or Grandma would never be able to scrape up the $12,000 annual tuition so they could attend the school. The money just wasn't there.
But no, these kids are not economically disadvantaged. They are not financially challenged. They are poor. P.O.O.R. Poor. The vast majority are Dominican and live in Lawrence, the poorest city in the state with 70% living in poverty. Can your family live on $35,000 a year? It has one of the highest unemployment rates. The public high school has nearly a 40% drop out rate and is still in receivership. The opiod crisis is out of control. (These facts don’t make Lawrence a bad city, it just makes it a city in dire need. But I digress...this is a topic for another day.)
The goal of the two-week mandatory “boot camp” was to prepare Miguel and the rest of the students to enter the professional working world. At barely fourteen, in barely three weeks, these kids would begin working outside the classroom one day a week, 9am-5pm, throughout all four academic years. It was part of the unique curriculum and allowed them to earn the majority of their tuition. Some would find themselves at software or tell-com companies, hospitals, insurance, accounting or medical device firms, and more. Soon, these P.O.O.R inner city kids would start the journey of building life-long personal and professional skills that they would never otherwise have the opportunity to do. They might soon be doing programming, assisting with financial reports, performing administrative tasks and reception duties (hopefully not attempting to eat the phone). They might soon be confidently making small talk in the hall with the CEO of a billion dollar software company while building social capital - social capital that remains elusive to this population.
Fact is, 100% of these determined, smart, hard-working, thoughtful, gritty youth, who, if they successfully completed the four years of this unique, rigorous, work study high school program, would be accepted to college.
“Where are you going to college?” not, “Are you going to college?” is the question. And they would name schools such as Notre Dame, Fairfield, Georgetown, UMass Lowell, Merrimack College, Bates, Providence, and many more! Pretty good return on investment. Take that Dow Jones!
So…back to Miguel and his thoughts on the meaning of life. My former colleague came into my office one day and showed me a copy of the essay that he had written. I was taken aback by not only the insight displayed by this fourteen year-old, but also his ability and manner in which he articulated it. This sage, at only eight years old, searched for - and found - meaning.
He wrote about, how, when he was just five years old he had a most painful experience. He was at a relative's funeral, and standing over the casket, yelled, "Wake up!" This was his first significant encounter with death. At that point, he tried to figure out the meaning of life, but without success, gave up. Then he tells us that at the ripe old age of eight he discovered that "life has no meaning. In life you make your own meaning." On that hot summer day, head down, pencil upright, he wrote how "we must make our own purpose - a purpose bigger than ourselves - by having dreams and hopes like graduating high school and college and being successful."
This Little Buddha’s words rang a bell and Viktor Frankl came to mind. Frankl, in his influential book, "Man's Search for Meaning," recounts his life laboring for three years in Nazi Germany concentration camps. His parents, his brother and his pregnant wife perished in the death camps, yet he survived, in part, because he was able to find meaning in his tragic circumstances.
Among the multitude of insights and lessons that Frankl teaches us, one is, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” At just fourteen, this soulful boy is choosing his own way and beginning the journey of discovering his life's purpose, with a compass guiding him towards achieving a high school diploma and a college degree.
To this day, a framed copy of Miguel’s complete essay sits on a table in my living room. I pick it up and re-read it from time to time, whenever I need a reminder about “Boy’s Search For Meaning.”