Most of us can look back at our lives and pinpoint certain events that were pivotal in our growth and development. There have been a few of those in my life and I expect that there will be a few more since I still have plenty of growing and developing to do before I’m done. However, I am thinking of one particular event, probably the most significant in my life. I know that it affected me at a profound level and shaped my entire future. The memory jumps out at me, still crystal clear after 40 long years…
It was the final exam in my grade 11 Ancient History class. Odd? Well, perhaps, but Roger McCombe was not your average teacher. He was quirky and unconventional and we never knew what he would come up with next. We could show up for class to find him wearing a toga or encouraging us to build a chariot to compete in a race at an annual Classics Convention. He made learning fun. He was a teacher who genuinely cared about his students and I think he believed that getting us to ask questions was more important than getting us to recite a lot of facts.
One day he announced that each of us would be scheduled for an appointment the following week and we would be taking our final exam one at a time. We had one week to prepare and it would be an oral exam consisting of a single question. All we had to do to receive a passing grade was demonstrate that we’d given the question serious thought. Serious thoughts take time so he gave us the question in advance. It wasn’t complicated and no one had to write it down. He simply asked “Why do you think you were put on this earth?”
I was 16 years old and above all things, I wanted my life to matter. That question rattled around in my head and I wanted an answer far more than I wanted a passing grade. I needed a place to think so I climbed the hill behind our house and found a rocky vantage point where I could look out over the treetops below. We weren’t a religious family. We were Catholics but we hadn’t attended church in years. I believed in God but all I knew about him was what I’d seen in movies like The Ten Commandments or Ben Hur. It occurred to me that if there was a reason for my existence, God would know. Maybe what I needed to do was just ask him.
I had my very first encounter with God on that hilltop. By the time I came down I knew what my answer to the big question would be. When my turn came I walked in and sat across the desk from my teacher and looked him in the eye.
“I was put on this earth to experience joy,” I said. He raised an eyebrow so I tried to explain. “I’m not talking about fun or even happiness. I think joy is something far deeper than either of those and I think that it comes from God.” There was a pause while he waited to see if I had anything more to add but I shook my head helplessly. That was it. It took less than 30 seconds. It was one question but it was an exercise that shaped the course of my entire life.
I think Mr. McCombe knew his question had the potential to do that. It wasn’t really a final exam after all. It was his final gift.
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