There are some things in life that I wholeheartedly, unabashedly, sometimes semi-obsessively just flat-out love. Miracle Whip, for instance. So good. You probably think of it as a condiment. I think of it as an entrée. Talking Heads – favorite band since high school. When I get an ice cream cone, it is always strawberry, unless I am thinking that my next strawberry cone will taste that much sweeter if I deny myself a strawberry cone this time. I was a big Stephen King fan for years, and had read almost everything he had written until somewhere around Desperation I decided I just couldn’t keep up. There’s a bunch more. There are some things in life we just adore, and maybe we can’t even explain why.
But there is a subset of these things that, for me, go beyond adoration and approach veneration. Calvin and Hobbes, for instance. My mashed potato recipe. Cryptic crosswords. The author Tim Dorsey. I like all those things a lot, to be sure, but it’s not how much I like them that makes them special. I would never say, for example, that I prefer Tim Dorsey to Stephen King. What makes these latter things special to me is that they are totally mine. I discovered them, and how great they are, all by myself. I grew to love Calvin and Hobbes, and even bought the first published collection, before I’d ever heard any of my friends raving about the comic. I took my father’s mashed potato recipe and enhanced it, with enough butter and cream to clog a whale’s arteries, to the point where anyone who tastes my potatoes swears they are the best they’ve ever had. I was solving cryptic crosswords for years, and even taught myself how to construct them, before I’d ever met a single other person who enjoyed them. And one day I pulled Tim Dorsey’s book Atomic Lobster off a library bookshelf because the title reminded me of a hallucination I’d had once when I had a fever as a child, and I discovered one of the funniest writers I’d ever read.
There is something undefinably inspiring about owning things in this way – about discovering something outstanding, or making something outstanding, entirely on your own. Maybe there is a smidgen of pride involved, from feeling like a trailblazer, ahead of the social curve. But for me, there is a much larger element of purity, in the knowledge that I’d found and judged these things to be wonderful myself. I wasn’t influenced by advertisers or peer pressure or popularity. I found these things myself, and I recognized their value myself, and that combined the wonder of revelation with an affirmation of my own judgment and abilities. I love Calvin and Hobbes not just because it is brilliant, but also because it shows that I can recognize brilliance. I can own brilliance.
As I have transitioned from the practice of law into the teaching of law, I have begun to feel this kind of ownership in a place I never had before – in my job. As a young associate, I did not feel as though much of my work promoted discovery. There was a lot of research, and occasionally I would find something I felt was notable, but usually these discoveries would be tempered, minimized, or cut altogether by my superiors. Even the discoveries that survived would end up trimmed, buffed, and pressed by others, so that they ended up a small nondescript part of a much larger document or presentation. I almost never felt like I was finding, creating, or recognizing great things. This may not always have been the job or the environment – it might just have been me, not fitting in. Whatever the reason, there were many things I liked about being a lawyer, but almost nothing that I found affirming. I did not own the job.
But today, a week does not go by in which I don’t recognize the significant applications of a theory or practice I hear about, or have a brainstorm in which I develop a new creative approach to my work, or experience a flash of insight about what is really standing in a particular student’s way. I am by no means a loner — I work well with my colleagues, and I value their suggestions and feedback. There are things I love about my work that I don’t feel I own — the Miracle Whip and the Stephen King equivalents in education. But it is those moments when I see something, or create something, and I know without anyone else telling me that it will make a difference to what I do — that it will make a difference in someone’s life — it is those moments that tell me I am doing the work I should be doing. This work is mine, because I own it.