It’s doesn’t happen often, those moments when you realize the true value of life. None of us really know why we are here or what we are supposed to make of it – and even when we do explore this question and alter our routine accordingly, it doesn’t change the fact that we still have a routine.
The impact each of us makes in this world and on the lives of others is so exceptional, we can’t even comprehend it until after the fact (and I mean, way after the fact). Maybe that is because the greatest impacts happen at a slow, incremental pace.
But somewhere in between you’ll get that rare minute of clarity: everything that has happened to you and every part of your journey leading up to this point mattered in a way that reaches far beyond you.
For me, it happened over the course of a year, every Tuesday and Thursday evening in the basement of a public library in Cambridge, MA. I talked with a 16-year-old young woman named Pierlene and edited her short stories. It was part of my university work-study job and although I enjoyed it and my time there was special to me, at the end of the day it was still just a job. Another human experience. Another routine.
It’s been almost four years since I worked in that library and it wasn’t until tonight that I realized what an enormous impact it had on Pierlene. All by simply reading her stories and chatting with her to pass the time until I could hop on the train and head home.
Around 8pm, I received a spontaneous call from my previous manager, Maria, from the work-study job. Pierlene had come home for the summer and asked her if it was possible to contact me. When I met Pierlene four years ago, she told me about the poverty her family faced and the complete chaos within the walls of her home. She confided that she didn’t want to go back, and that she would wonder the streets until 3AM. Every morning she would leave her house hours before school started, just to get some peace and quiet. I remember, at twenty-two years old, wishing I could take her home with me to my apartment.
Tonight, Pierlene and I had a very different conversation. She told me that the book she was working on in high school – the one I’d edit every Thursday night – is now published. Her first year of college in Pittsburgh was wonderful and she excelled in her English classes but plans on changing her major to Sociology. I told her what a bright future she has ahead and how highly I always thought of her. I said I was proud of her. The only thing I didn’t tell her was the remarkable impact she has made on my life, because the moment didn’t hit me until the call ended.