I wrote this as a speech almost five years ago for an auditorium full of high school students where I used to work. At the time, I had no idea “walking in your purpose” would become my mantra. I was just asked to give a speech, and this is what I came up with. Although it was written with high school students in mind there are some nuggets in here for anyone trying to figure what this whole “walking in your purpose” thing is. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I surely enjoyed writing it!
I am a self-proclaimed word nerd and because I’m a word nerd, that means that as a child growing up, I had a fascination with words; way that they sounded, what they meant, how they were spelled. The way they felt in my mouth when I would say them.
“Perspicacity.” My former students should know what that means. “Superfluous”, and words like “extemporaneous.” I love words. The subtle nuances between meanings. Like, for example, the word “pretty” and the word “pulchritudinous” both mean attractive. But the word “pretty” is used for everything, the sky, your car, your new weave. But the word “pulchritudinous” is only used when you are talking about someone’s extreme physical beauty.
See, we have words that sometimes we think mean the same thing and we use them synonymously. They might be similar, but they don’t mean the same thing. Two other words that do that are “educator” and “teacher.” A teacher is somebody who imparts knowledge of a skill. But an educator is somebody, who by virtue of their training, is then qualified for a calling. Which leads me to the point that I want to share with you.
Here recently, I have been fascinated by two words – occupation and vocation. And much like pretty and pulchritudinous, and teacher and educator, they’re used synonymously but they don’t mean the same thing. They are similar but they are not the same. So, for example, the word occupation means “the means by which someone makes a living.” It’s your job. And a vocation means “someone’s business or their occupation.” So, see, they’re really similar but the rest of the definition for vocation is your calling. Your occupation is what you do whereas your vocation is what you are called to do. Now, most people spend their entire lives only living at the level of having an occupation but there are a blessed few among us who are excited about the fact that their vocation and their occupation happen to be the same thing.
Now if you’re wondering how it is that you know that you have a vocation or that you wonder, well how am I supposed to know what my purpose is or what my calling is, or why I was put on this Earth. It’s interesting because the universe always has a way of showing you. See, I’m a teacher. So, I know that I am operating in my vocation because I can see it in the faces of all of my students. But the fact of the matter is that there was one student in particular who reminded me and made it very clear that the only thing that I was supposed to be doing with my life is this. And he came, and this clue came to me in the form of a 14-year-old boy by the name of Texas.
So, Texas isn’t his real name. It’s his nickname. But when he walked into the building his ninth-grade year, Texas was indicative of the size of the chip that he wore on his shoulder. And with good reason. When Texas came in as a ninth grader, Texas was a part-time drug dealer and a full-time brawler. And he was angry all the time, every day, at everybody. Especially me. Texas was in my third period class, and Texas would skip my class every day, when he wasn’t suspended, and he was suspended every other day. So, when he was in the building, he would skip my class. But he would skip my class outside of my door, which was clue number one to me that this was a really interesting kid. Because if you’re going to skip class, then why would you skip outside of the door of the person who’s class you’re supposed to be in?
And for a couple of weeks, I kind of let Texas do his thing because, again, he was only here for a day, then he was suspended. And then one day something rolled up in me and I just got tired of seeing him stand outside my door. So I walked outside, in all of my four-foot-eleven-and-a-half-ness, and I put my hand on my hip and I looked at him and I said, “Are you going to skip my class every day?” He swears he didn’t do this, but he looked down at me, and he turned to his friends, and he said, “Who is she?” And he didn’t say she, he used another more colorful word. And his friends laughed.
But I like a challenge. So I switched hips, and I said, “Are you going to skip my class every day?” And he looked at me and he laughed. I said, “Okay.” So I reached up and I grabbed him by the ear and I dragged him to my classroom and I sat him down in the front row and I said, “Learn something.” And on that day, I became Texas’ least favorite person in the world. And for two weeks, this battle of will between the two of us happened. He would go stand outside my door. I would go grab him by the ear and I would sit him down in the front row.
And after two weeks, he later tells me, he said after two weeks Ms. Holliman, I just got tired of you coming to get me. He said I got tired of this short, crazy English teacher stalking me and following me around the building, so I just decided it was easier for me to come to class. An interesting thing happened when he came to class. I discovered that Texas was far less the bravado that he portrayed and that he was a phenomenal mind. He had a wonderful heart. And that he was a writer and he was a poet and he was a spoken word artist and he was a rapper and he was everything that nobody knew that he was. And then he discovered that I was indeed a short, crazy, English teacher. But the reason that I was crazy was because I took a lot of pride and passion and caring for my students.
So that was almost 10 years ago and in May 2014, I had the pleasure of watching Texas graduate from high school with his diploma in one hand and four college acceptances in the other. And I cried. And we cried. And there were days during those four years that he was in school that I wanted to quit because I didn’t want to do this whole teaching thing anymore. Because, along with Texas, I had all other kinds of students and they were all coming to me and I was trying to be everything to them and I was, like, I don’t want to do this anymore. But, see, that’s the difference between walking in your occupation and your vocation. Because if this was just an occupation for me, then walking away would be really easy. But because I know I’m walking in my purpose, you know, I’ll always talk about how I’m going to quit, how I’m not going to be here next year. I’m going to go do something else. But the fact of the matter is I can’t, because this is what I was called to do.
So when you’re talking about your career and college readiness, it is my hope that you will go, and yes, I want you to get an occupation because I want you to be able to feed yourself and I want you to get out of your parents’ houses. But I want you to also look for that thing that keeps you up at night, that lights a fire in your soul, that thing that you couldn’t imagine your life being if you didn’t have it. And then I want you to ask yourself a question, as you are going throughout life. Am I doing what I am called to do? Or am I just occupying space? Thank you.