Coincidence Examined
Home Up Conclusion

   

Book One:

A SIMPLE ACT OF KINDNESS


PART FOUR: RETROSPECT

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE:
COINCIDENCE EXAMINED

Written by Rick Archer

  2015, Richard Archer

 

 


SUBCHAPTER 97
- ANOTHER COINCIDENCE

 

The inspiration for my book was the amazing coincidence that brought Mrs. Ballantyne to my rescue at a critical time in my life.  This moment made such a powerful impression on me that I would spend the rest of my life thinking about its ramifications. 

Coincidences don't just happen to me.  They happen to all of us.  However, since coincidences don't happen very often, we don't usually keep very good track of them.  Furthermore, most coincidences are just plain silly which is why we dismiss them so readily.  However, once in a while, a coincidence can be so abnormally weird that it leaves us shaking our heads in bewilderment and searching desperately for a rational explanation... but no rational explanation ever appears. 

A good example involved actor Anthony Hopkins, best known for his Academy award-winning performance as Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs.  Hopkins tells the story of a strange coincidence he encountered back in 1973.


Early in his acting career, Anthony Hopkins agreed to appear as third lead in The Girl From Petrovka, a movie based on a novel by George Feifer.  Hopkins had accepted his role with just the slightest idea what the story was about.  As he prepared for an upcoming trip, he wanted to use his spare time to read the book and begin thinking about how to approach his new role. 

Living in the English countryside, Hopkins made a special day trip into London to get a copy.  However, despite a determined search of this city with its limitless number of bookstores, Hopkins came up empty.  Hopkins was shocked at his inability to find a single copy of Feifer's Petrovka book.  After his fruitless search, he headed to the train station feeling deeply frustrated.

Hopkins had just entered the train stop at Leicester Square to board a train home.  Imagine Hopkins' surprise when he spotted a well-worn copy of The Girl From Petrovka that had been discarded on a nearby bench. 

This was a strange coincidence indeed.  It became even stranger two years later.

At this point Hopkins was in Vienna during the actual filming of The Girl From Petrovka.  Author George Feifer decided to visit the set. During a conversation with Hopkins, Feifer mentioned that he didn't even have a copy of his own book.  Feifer ruefully admitted he had lent his last copy (complete with annotations) to a friend.  The book had been stolen from the friend's car somewhere in London.  Since London is a vast place, Feifer assumed the book was long lost.

Hopkins, puzzled, recalled the copy he had found also contained detailed notes in the margins.  Curious, he went to fetch his copy.  He brought it back and showed it to Feifer. 

The author gasped. Feifer confirmed that this was his personal copy of the book.

Anthony Hopkins of all people was not only the person who found Feifer's missing book in the absolute middle of nowhere, by another quirk he became the person to return it to Feifer.


Yes, I know the argument... random chance.  With so many people here on earth, statistically speaking some weird stuff is bound to happen sooner or later.  "Coincidences" don't prove anything.  But they sure make you wonder.

Is it possible to foresee events in the future?  If there really is such a thing as Fate, then perhaps there is precognition as well. 

Here is an example of what I mean.


In 1898, Morgan Robertson wrote a book titled Futility.  The subtitle was The Wreck of the Titan.  The similarities in the book to the actual wreck of the Titanic are uncanny.


In the fictional version as well as the actual event, both ships struck an iceberg in the middle of the Atlantic. 
Both the story and the actual collision took place at midnight in mid-April.

The Titanic disaster took place 400 miles from Newfoundland. The Titan disaster took place 400 miles from Newfoundland.

Since the Titan was considered unsinkable, it carried far too few lifeboats, "as few as the law allowed."  Does that sound familiar?

In real life, more than half the Titanic's 2200 passengers and crew died.  In the book, more than half of the Titan's 2500 passengers drowned.

Although he was a well-known writer of short stories, Morgan Robertson became deeply frustrated when no one would publish his book.  The rejection letters all said the same thing.

"Sorry, but no one will ever believe this story."

That 1898 date is correct.  The actual Titanic sinking took place in 1912. 

Robertson had written his book 14 years prior to the actual event.


During my Junior year in college, I encountered a new coincidence.

"Precognition" is certainly not a gift I possess, yet I curiously visualized a very curious lucky break two weeks ahead of time. 

In March 1971, I was in the final phase of my Magical Mystery Tour, the two year stretch I spent in college pondering the mysteries of life.   Out of nowhere, a highly unusual idea crossed my mind.

One afternoon I grew tired of studying.  Taking a break, I asked myself what sort of job I would like to find for this upcoming summer. I found myself daydreaming for a moment. 

That is when a fun thought drifted into my mind.  Wouldn't it be cool to be a camp counselor?  

A big smile crossed my face.  Very cool indeed.

I had spent my entire life inside the protective walls of Johns Hopkins and St. John's.  Wouldn't it be great to get outdoors for a change? Canoes, swimming, archery, softball, basketball, volleyball, nature hikes, practical jokes, marshmellows over campfires.

The very thought of it all had me smiling, so I continued to daydream.

Where would I like to be a counselor?  Well, Colorado, of course.  I had visited Colorado several times as a boy with the Clark family and went absolutely nuts over the mountains.  To me, Colorado was the most beautiful place on earth.

What an odd thought.  I had never been to a summer camp.  For that matter, I had never before thought of being a camp counselor.  Today the idea just popped into my head out of nowhere.  I casually wondered where such strange thoughts come from.  It was almost as if someone had whispered to me and put the idea in my head. 

As I rolled the novel idea around, I agreed it sounded like fun, but then my practical side kicked in and dismissed the thought.  How silly to even imagine.  What were the chances of finding a job like that?

For one thing, there wasn't much time left.  This was March.  Summer was just around the corner.

Plus I had absolutely no idea where to even begin looking. 

Since I had never been to summer camp, I did not know the name or location of a single place.  Nor did I know of anyone who had ever been to a summer camp.  I didn't have the slightest idea how to go about applying. 

I imagined with some research, I could come up with the names of several camps.  However, even if I went to the trouble of sending a letter to a total stranger, why would they hire me?  What exactly did I have to offer that made me special?

My practical side suggested that most camp counselors were chosen in-house.  In other words, any college student who had previously attended a summer camp as a teenager would have the inside track.  If they had made a good impression, they would surely be the first person asked to return as a counselor. 

I shrugged.  Oh well.  My camp counselor idea was a nice fantasy, but far-fetched at best.  It seemed like a complete waste of time to give it another thought, so I returned to my studies.  I never lifted a finger and soon forgot all about it.

Two weeks passed. 

Homewood Friends Meeting, the place where the Quakers met, had a day care center.  I had offered to do some volunteer work.  I liked playing with the kids and it was a fun thing to do a couple afternoons a week.  Normally pick-up basketball was my afternoon activity, but I was doing this volunteer work as a way to snap myself out of my constant loneliness.

One day I was playing with Eric, age 4, my favorite kid.  I made a point to seek him out whenever I was there.   Great kid, all boy.  I loved to chase Eric through the elevated playhouse and across the hanging wood bridge, etc.  I could be a great monster when given the chance and today I was in rare form. 

"Grr, grr, I'm gonna get you, Eric, and I am gonna sit on you!!"

Eric squealed with delight as I lumbered after him, growling the whole time how I wanted to catch him and sit on him.  Eric and I had a standing joke that monsters were so stupid they thought "babysitting" meant sitting on the baby.

We were right in the middle of monster mania when Eric's mother Jennifer arrived.  When Jennifer called out to him that it was time to go, Eric immediately began to protest.  "I don't want to go, Mommy.  I want to stay here and play with Rick!"

Jennifer laughed.  Eric's protest was a part of our little game.  The three of us went through this practically every time Jennifer appeared.

Today I noticed Jennifer had a lady friend with her.  The woman was about 30, a couple years older than Jennifer.  Lonely as always, I could not help but notice that this lady was very pretty.  I sighed appreciatively and wished for the millionth time that Hopkins had coeds.  Then I blushed when I realized this new lady had been watching our game of monsters.  Good grief.  She must think I was the silliest boy on earth. 

As Eric hugged his mother's waist, Jennifer noticed my appreciative gaze at the new lady and decided to make an introduction.  

"Rick, this is my sister Mary Colvig.  She is visiting me here in Baltimore for a couple days."

I smiled.  I introduced myself and we shook hands. 

"Welcome to Baltimore!  Where are you from, Mary?"

"Colorado."

My eyes quickly furrowed.  Colorado?  I instantly had the funniest feeling. 

"That's interesting.  When I was a boy, I visited Colorado four different summers with the Clarks, a family I am close to.  I absolutely love Colorado.  In fact, I was thinking of applying to graduate school in Colorado.  What do you do in Colorado?"

"My husband Craig and I run a summer camp."

No way.  My heart skipped a beat. 

"No kidding?  Gee, that's an odd coincidence.  I was thinking of working as a counselor this summer.  Do you have any openings?"

Awaiting her answer, I stopped breathing.  I could not believe this was happening.

"Why, yes, by chance we do!  But we are leaving town tomorrow.  Can you come over to Jennifer's house tonight and speak to my husband Craig while we're still in Baltimore?"

Jennifer quickly spoke up. 

"Oh, Mary, I think Rick would be a terrific counselor.  He loves kids and the kids here at the day school adore him.  Just look at Eric; Eric goes nuts over him."

At this comment, Mary broke into broad smile.  She knew what Jennifer was up to, but didn't mind a bit.  If anything, Mary appreciated hearing her sister's personal endorsement.

So did I.  Wow!  Nice timing on the compliment.  I smiled at Jennifer and whispered a discreet 'thank you very much!' 

I talked with Mary's husband Craig that night.  He liked me and, boom, just like that, I got the job. 

I would spend my entire summer working at their camp in Durango, Colorado. 

Wouldn't it be nice if everything in life was that easy?? 

 


SUBCHAPTER 98
- THE NATURE OF LUCK

 

There is a very odd footnote to this story.

As they say, be careful what you wish for.  A lucky break may not turn out exactly as one expects. 

This Chinese tale explores the concept of luck.

There was a old farmer in the Taihang mountains of China who used a horse to till his fields.  Considering how rocky the soil was, this was an arduous task.

One day, the horse escaped into the hills.  Now the farmer had no way to till the field.  When the farmer's neighbors sympathized with the old man over his bad luck, the farmer shrugged. 

He replied, "Bad luck?  Good luck?  Who knows?"

A week later, the horse returned with a herd of horses from the hills.  The farmer put them all in a corral. This time the neighbors congratulated the farmer on his good luck.  He replied, "Good luck? Bad luck?  Who knows?"

Soon after, the farmer's son attempted to tame one of the wild horses.  The mustang reared up and threw the boy off its back.  The boy hit the ground hard and broke his leg.  As the boy screamed in pain, everyone agreed this was very bad luck.  The old farmer wasn't so sure.  As usual, with his whimsical smile, the farmer's only reaction was, "Bad luck?  Good luck?  Who knows?"

Some weeks later, the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied youth they found. When they saw the farmer's son was unable to walk on his badly broken leg, they didn't give him a second glance.  In the Chinese army, everyone had to march.

The boy was left behind. 

Was that good luck or bad luck?  Who can say?

 

A chapter in Autobiography of a Yogi made the exact same point.  Yogananda, the author, said the distinction between a good break and a bad break can be easily blurred.  Sometimes good breaks become bad breaks.  Sometimes bad breaks become good breaks.

Everything that seems to be bad on the surface may be something good in disguise.  Maybe there's a silver lining somewhere.  And something that seems good on the surface may have unexpected consequences.  Only time will tell.

The perfect example is my father who got shot in the hip by a Nazi sniper in World War II.  This took place shortly before the Battle of the Bulge.  My father had only been in Belgium for a couple weeks when he was told to join a patrol sent through the Ardennes forest.

From a thicket of trees, a shot rang out.  Instantly my father was knocked off his feet and fell to the ground writhing in pain.  Unable to walk, he summoned every ounce of will to crawl towards a nearby log for protection.  It was a good thing he moved because another shot whizzed right past him.

My father's comrades inundated the spot where the shot had come from with a hail of bullets.  Then they carefully explored the area to find the sniper.  All they found were two empty shells behind a tree.  My father couldn't walk, so they carried him back to camp.  The pain was overwhelming.  It took everything my father had in him not to scream.   Seeing his agony, every man in the unit make sure to express their sympathy and offer encouragement.  

Now in the hospital, Dad was in tremendous pain for days on end.  Even when the pain finally subsided, he was unable to get out of bed without a wheel chair for four months.  He walked with a crutch for a year.

Good luck or bad luck?

My father told me without hesitation that this event was the luckiest break of his life.  Why?  Because it got him out of the war with his life, his body, and his pride intact.  My father's next stop would be college care of Uncle Sam.  Some of his friends weren't so lucky.  Their next stop was a cemetery in the Ardennes forest.

 


SUBCHAPTER 99
- LIFE IS FOR LEARNING

 

Well, maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it's the time of man
I don't know who l am
But you know life is for learning.

-- Woodstock, Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell said life is for learning.  My favorite book Autobiography of a Yogi said the same thing, but added "reincarnation" was part of the game.  Through all our ups and downs, the Hindu philosophy indicates we are all here to learn something whether we like it or not. 

As for me, that unexpected summer camp counselor job was surely a wonderful lucky break.  Or so I thought.  I can't even begin to explain how excited I was to get that job.  Guess what?  That job made me absolutely miserable!!
 

I learned some very bitter lessons that summer.  My problems started from the moment I got there.  I quickly discovered I was an unwelcome stranger in a strange land. 

The other counselors were all from a nearby agricultural college.  Since most of them already knew each other, they were a very tight-knit group. 

I was an introverted philosophy major from an elite Eastern university who suddenly found himself placed with the Future Farmers of America.  I could not have possibly been more different.  I had no idea how to relate.

While I spent my time in college writing papers contemplating God's will, the other twenty camp counselors were agriculture and veterinary majors who could ride horses, build fences and tie knots. They were lifelong Boy Scouts who knew how to take care themselves in the Colorado wilderness. 

Meanwhile, I was the only city slicker in the bunch.  I was completely out of my element and my ignorance of the Great Outdoors showed in all sorts of embarrassing ways.  I cannot even begin to share the fear I felt the time they made me get on a horse.  I had never been on a horse in my life. 

When that horse took off at a gallop, I was sure it was curtains for me.  While I hung on for dear life, the other counselors thought that was hysterical.  Thanks, guys, I could have been hurt.

There were three young men in particular who picked on me unmercifully.   Once they discovered that I was "different", these jerks thought it was their job to remind me every chance they got that I didn't belong here.  Since I was such a greenhorn, I was easy pickings indeed.  When the teasing became meaner, I didn't have a clue how to cope other than retreat into sullen silence.  Always the loner, I kept to myself when they were around.

One development that had not occurred to me beforehand was the presence of female camp counselors.  And guess what?  At first, two of those girls, Nancy and Patricia, thought I was cute.  In the first week of camp, Nancy invited me to join her for a long walk in the woods.  A couple days later, so did Patricia.  That's right, they asked me of all people to go for walk. 

Alone in the woods... did I take advantage of the situation?  No.  I screwed up royally.  I spent both walks complaining about how those young men were making my life miserable.  Not surprisingly, both girls gave up on me.  To my dismay, they found themselves agreeing with the boys - I was weird!

Those nine years of being the underdog at St. John's combined with my girl problems at Hopkins had left mental scars that were tough to overcome. 

Back at Hopkins, I had not been near a woman since my Freshman year. At the time, I blamed my problems on my acne scars.  Although the scars on my face were easy enough for others to ignore, inside my mind I was certain that I was ugly.  Now, in addition to my feelings of ugliness, I began to realize my real problem was my lack of understanding of how to be a friend to young women.  My time at this camp served as a painful reminder of how unbelievably clueless I was around girls my age. 

I felt so bitter.  By the time summer was over, I felt just as ostracized by the Aggies at this camp as I had ever felt snubbed by the Preppies at St. John's.  I wanted to be accepted, but that wasn't going to happen.  I didn't seem to have anything in common with my peers.

In other words, my lucky break to land this unexpected dream job had turned into a bad break that exposed glaring weaknesses in my social skills.  This job was a really bad break!  Or was it?  Some might say I had been given a valuable insight into the specific areas where I needed to improve.

Fortunately there was one bright spot.  To my surprise, I turned the tables on those counselors who wrote me off as a loser.  So how did this happen?

Well, answer this question... what kind of kids go to summer camp?   Think about it.  Rich kids.  And which camp counselor had NINE YEARS of experience being around rich kids?  Now you're catching on.

Sure enough, by a twist of fate, my time at St. John's allowed me to relate effortlessly to the kids at camp.  While many of the other male counselors were flat-footed when it came to relating to the Junior Preppies, I had a direct pipeline to their sense of humor and what they enjoyed talking about. 

Besides, I was still a kid at heart.  In a way, I was going to my first summer camp and I wore my enthusiasm on my sleeve when no one was picking on me.  I contented myself by having all kinds of fun with the boys in my cabin.  I became the best older brother ever.  Sometimes we went on long mountain climbs.  Other times we played hide and seek or blind man's bluff.  Each night I would read ghost stories to the boys and scare them silly.

At the big camp-wide "Capture the Flag" contest, I had the nerve to use strategy.  First I chose two boys to be a decoy.  The boys allowed themselves to be captured.  Then they followed my orders and made a huge fuss over getting caught.  The distraction worked to perfection.  The other team was so busy cheering over this exciting capture that the guards completely ignored my second group coming up from behind from three different directions to grab the flag.  Much to the chagrin of the opposing counselors, the kids named me their 'Fearless Leader'.  He who laughs last...

After I taught the older boys the words to The Last Kiss, a corny song about a guy who loses his girlfriend in a car crash, they became a major sensation at the big campfire songfest.  The teenage girls screamed like they were the Beatles.  Considering how lame the other counselors' song selections had been, the boys gave me undying gratitude for their newfound popularity.

The counselors were astonished when they saw how much the kids liked me.  They had no idea as to the secret of my success.  However, it didn't improve my standing.  By and large, the majority of the counselors had little to do with me.  I wasn't "one of them".  Meanwhile, the three young men who disliked me intensified their bullying tactics.  Very strange summer. 

Yes, I was socially awkward around my peers, but I also had quite an imagination.  I instinctively knew how to create fun and excitement.  As one might gather, I was receiving an early glimpse of the skills I would one day use to create my dance studio.  Despite all my awkwardness, I knew I had a good heart and wanted to do good things.  If I could just find a way to gain confidence around people my own age, I believed I had a lot to offer. 

Jack, frowning and wearing glasses, was the one who made my life miserable.  I am in the far back.

Nancy, Mary Colvig (owner of the camp), and Patricia

Notice my button down shirt... always the Preppie

It turned out the camp kids were Preppies too

'The Last Kiss' turned these boys into Rock Stars
 

 


SUBCHAPTER 100
- FAILURE

 

Autobiography of a Yogi said the object of the Hindu system of karma and reincarnation is to promote the growth of the soul.  The book suggested that although we have free will the majority of the time, there is also Fate.  There are some things that are going to happen to us no matter what.  Then it is up to us to decide how to respond to the hand we are dealt.

When one looks at the camp counselor job in a different way, I could see that perhaps I had been placed in this situation to recognize the shortcomings that my isolated life at Hopkins did not reveal.  At Hopkins, I was a loner content to avoid any challenge that would remind me of my extremely limited social skills.  If I was to succeed later in life, I would need to learn how to get along with people who were different than me.  Furthermore, I would definitely need to learn how to act around pretty girls.

Looking at things from a mystical point of view, the Universe had lured me into going out to Colorado to take me out of my comfort zone.  I had to learn some painful lessons the hard way.  So yes, I was humiliated when confronted with my inadequacies, but I also learned what I needed to work on.  I wasn't successful in this summer camp situation, but hopefully I would improve when given my next chance. 

I have described my education at St. John's as the great miracle of my life.  And yet all I have done is whine and complain about how much I suffered at the school for nine long years.  Quite a paradox, yes?

So was St. John's a good break or a bad break?  Of course it was good break.  Let me change that... it was an incredible break!

Yet at the same time, this great opportunity of a lifetime brought me considered heartache as well.  Perhaps that was the price I had to pay.  The nine years I spent feeling inferior would cause me untold problems later in life.  I was so crippled emotionally by those nine years that the rejection I experienced in my Freshman year of college and the rejection I experienced as a camp counselor were only the beginning.  I wouldn't wish my childhood on anyone.  Clearly, just growing older or changing locations wasn't good enough.  Someday I would have to face my demons and come up with solutions.

The acne attack in my Freshman year of high school had been the first great crisis of my life.  My problems in my Senior year of high school were the second great crisis.  Now this embarrassing camp counselor experience was a dark preview of the serious troubles waiting for me just down the road in Graduate school.  Sure enough, my Great Day of Reckoning was awaiting me.  Two years after the summer camp experience, my personality problems would rear their ugly head in graduate school to cause the third great crisis.

In the fall of 1973, I entered the clinical psychology program at Colorado State.  I had planned to become a therapist.  Instead I got myself unceremoniously thrown out of graduate school.

What went wrong?  To make a long story short, my big mouth got me in a world of trouble.  Dating back to my years at St. John's, I had never learned there are times when it is more prudent to keep one's thoughts to himself. 

My big mistake was debating theories with one of my psychology professors.  A cold, calculating man, he took a serious dislike to me from the start.  He saw my questioning as an affront to his authority.   Insinuating that I was totally unfit to become a psychotherapist, he failed me in his course. Unfortunately, this man was also the chairman of the department.  Although the other professors liked me well enough, no one was going to stand up to him for me. 

Was the professor right?  Yes and no. 

During the second half of the year, I went into therapy to get the help I needed to work through my "issues".  I made a lot of progress.  However my professor wasn't in the mood to give me a second chance.  My days of second chances were over. 

Sad to say, there was another equally serious problem.

At the same time as I struggled with my nemesis professor, I was getting my heart broken by a cheating girlfriend.  My lack of experience around women set me up for a terrible blow.  With both failures hitting at once, I was absolutely flattened.  Painfully aware the personality flaws from my difficult childhood were directly responsible, I had no idea how I would ever find a way to conquer these demons inside me.  I pretty much shriveled up into my shell for the remainder of the school year.

Oddly enough, I did have one bright spot.  After failing that class in the first part of the year, they allowed me to hang around and finish out the school year.  That spring I was assigned to help a different professor teach a huge Intro to Psychology class to 300 students.  He taught this class by lecture.  I was one of the two graduate students assigned to conduct weekly review seminars to go over the professor's lecture a second time. 

With these smaller groups, the students could ask questions if they wished.  Only one problem... the undergraduates never said a word.  They just sat there like robots occasionally jotting down something I said.  Once I realized I was doing all the talking, I was appalled.  This wasn't the kind of education I had received at St. John's.  This was nonsense. 

I understood that in two months, I would be asked to leave the program permanently.  So why not amuse myself a little?  I decided to light a fire under them.  The following week I made a special presentation based on a famous experiment in Psychological research.  I carefully explained how the experiment was structured, what they discovered, and then I suggested what the findings meant as a way to understand why we do the things we do.

It was wonderful to watch as all sorts of light bulbs turned on.  For the first time, the students could see how advances in Psychology could explain human behavior.  They found this material very interesting.  One young lady asked a question.  Instead of answering it myself, I asked if anyone else had an answer.  The next I knew, the class was discussing the experiment and talking about some of their own issues as well.  Holy cow, my class had turned into group therapy!

I presented another experiment the following week.  The students were ready this time.  The conversation began the moment I was finished.  They loved talking about how Psychology could solve life problems.  I was gratified by their positive response to my project.  I was reminded of how I used to admire Mr. Salls and Dr. Lieberman, two of my gifted teachers, for their teaching ability.  I recalled that I used to wish I could be a teacher someday.  But what?  It was too late now.  In two months, I would be gone from this program.

I sighed wistfully.  This experience suggested that if I could ever find a way to solve my own myriad array of personal problems, I had some definite talent.  I remember saying an odd little prayer... 'just give me a chance to show what I can do'.

One day the other teaching assistant complained to me that his section just kept getting smaller and smaller.  I had not been aware of this.  However I had noticed my own class kept getting larger.  I quietly concluded that word of mouth had caused some of his students to switch to my class instead.

Apparently the other graduate student found out about my special presentations.  Angry, he went to the professor and blamed me for the seesaw attendance effect.  He said that I wasn't playing fair.  Curious, the professor decided to observe my class without telling me.  I was surprised to see him waiting for me at the end of class.  My heart sunk immediately.  I assumed I was in trouble.

His first comment was to note the unusual size of my class.  Considering I was the black sheep of the department, I assumed I was about to get chewed out for something, but I was wrong.  To my surprise, I realized he didn't seem mad.  Instead, he began to compliment me.  The professor said I had done a good job.  He said I kept the class interesting, he liked my presentation, he liked my sense of humor, and noted I kept the students involved by asking very good questions. 

The professor added that typically his assistants simply parroted what he had said in his lecture and there was practically no discussion.   In his experience, ordinarily the undergraduates rarely said a word.  He was impressed at how much the students participated and even commented, "Generally the students don't say a word."  At that, a smile crossed my face.  I nodded quietly. 

My professor smiled back.  "Rick, I was impressed by what I saw in there.  I think you have a real future as a teacher."

Several thoughts raced quickly through my mind.  First, I realized it had been Mr. Salls who taught me how to keep a class moving by challenging us with frequent questions.  I had my German teacher to thank for this secret. 

Second, it was nice to hear a compliment for a change.  Most of this year had been marked by a neverending stream of biting criticism from the professor who didn't like me. 

My third thought was bitter scorn.  What the hell did this compliment do for me?   Just what exactly was I supposed to teach?  My time at this school was nearly over.  I was just doing something special in this class to amuse myself.  But I had no future here. 

I shrugged my shoulders in futility.  Other than this small ray of light, I considered myself a failure in this program.  In fact, I was so disgusted with this graduate program, I told myself I was permanently done with school in general.  It was time to make my way in the world.  I never wanted to see another college classroom again in my life.  Given my opposition to further education, this 'teaching idea' was a waste of time because there was nothing I was qualified to teach without further academic training. 

I thanked the man for his kind words, but actually found myself more depressed than usual.  I knew the professor was trying to help, but all his comments did was upset me.  After an entire year of futility, I had finally found something I was good at, but it was too late.  I was filled with disgust.  I didn't give the professor's advice another thought.

Sure enough, at the end of the school year, they sent me packing.  My failure in graduate school and my cheating girlfriend sent me reeling.  After returning to Houston in June 1974, I hit rock bottom.  Locked in depression, I didn't move for a month.  I either had a nervous breakdown or something very close to it.  I was a beaten young man.  Directionless and lacking self-confidence, I retreated into a bitter, cheerless personality that left me without friends.

The next three years were marked by further depression and abject mediocrity.  These would be the longest three years of my life.

 


SUBCHAPTER 101
- DESTINY

 

So was the broken heart and the dismissal from graduate school a good break or a bad break? 

Considering how much I suffered and how long it took me to recover, it isn't easy accepting those twin failures could possibly be a good break.  And yet those colossal failures laid the seeds for my future dance career. 

Without those failures, I could never have become a success.

Once I was strong enough to resume my life, I took dance lessons as a last ditch effort to gain confidence around women.  Lonely out of my mind, I found a book on how to meet girls.  The book suggested dancing was a good way to break the ice.  I took the book's suggestion to heart.  However, I immediately discovered I was a terrible dancer.  I was deeply disheartened by this newest piece of bad news.  Fortunately, I refused to quit.  I realized I had a strange fixation on dance that I did not completely understand. Consequently, I plodded along despite my glacial progress.

Over a period of three years, I underwent a transformation of sorts.  To my surprise, this dance project not only rescued me from my nervous breakdown, it also offered much-needed lessons along the way about women.  Indeed, my new-found dance skills made a difference.  It took quite a bit of time, but once I finally got the hang of dancing, my lack of confidence around women would never be a problem again.

During the three year period of my dance project, I certainly never anticipated these dance lessons would accidentally lead to my career. 

In 1977, a series of remarkable coincidences skyrocketed me into an unexpected career as a dance teacher.  It started when one day my line dance teacher said she was leaving town for the summer.  Would I like to sub for her?  Then within the space of a couple months, two more small dance jobs were offered to me.  I was just puttering along when my big break hit. 

At the tail of end of 1977, the arrival of Saturday Night Fever created a huge and quite sudden interest in Disco dancing.  The phone were ringing off the hook.  There were very few Disco teachers at the start of this new dance frenzy, so I was asked to expand my role. 

In other words, I was in the right place at the right time.  Practically overnight I began teaching every night of the week.  My career was a fluke.  Or was it??

First someone handed me a job as a dance teacher even though I barely had any idea what I was doing.  Immediately after that, another job was offered out of the blue.  New doors just kept opening.  All I had to do was walk through those doors.  However, each time I crossed a threshold, I faced a weird combination of opportunity and serious new problems and challenges.  I struggled mightily for four long years to cope with my ensuing rollercoaster life.

Then one day in 1981 the frantic pace finally slowed down a bit.  I realized I had finally made it.  My studio was a success.  Amazingly, the man who couldn't dance and couldn't relate to women was not only the best-known dance teacher in Houston, he owned the largest dance studio in town.  This made absolutely no sense.  How on earth did this happen?

On paper, it was an accident, a freak event.  But I refused to believe that.  That explanation wasn't good enough for me. Taking careful note of those "lucky breaks" that kept opening doors, I became convinced there had to be a better explanation than dumb luck.

Someone had helped me.  I was sure of it.

 

It is, of course, a cosmic absurdity that a man who is not a natural dancer... who started with minimal social skills... who never participated in an accredited training program... who never won a dance contest... who never received a teaching award... who never received the slightest bit of professional recognition... would one day create the largest dance studio America.

How much sense does make? 

We like to pretend that the world is a fair place where hard work is rewarded.  That said, statistically speaking, we all know a smart and hard-working child abandoned by his father and stuck with an incompetent mother will generally never amount to much, especially not in field where he has no particular natural ability.

Rare exceptions exist of course.  My dance career was the rare exception.

Perhaps it would help to underscore the absurdity of my accomplishment if I explained how a career in the world of dance is supposed to work.  I had the privilege to know a great woman.  Her name was Patsy Swayze. 

Patsy was Patrick Swayze's mother.  Yes, that "Patrick Swayze". 

Patsy was one of my dance instructors during that three year stretch of mediocrity.  As one might gather, Patsy was one of the people who helped me heal and grow during my "transformation" stage.

Patsy owned a jazz and ballet studio here in Houston that specialized in training children for careers in dance.  In addition, Patsy taught an adult jazz class; that is how I met her.  For some reason Patsy took a shine to me.  Perhaps it was because I was Patrick's age.  Another reason was surely how touched she was by my effort despite my obvious lack of talent.  Patsy's heart went out to me and she encouraged me so much.

We became friends.  Sometimes I would go in early and ask Patsy if she had time for some coffee.  We would talk about everything under the sun.

One day Patsy was extremely excited.  She couldn't wait to tell me about her son.  Patrick had just received a starring role in Grease on Broadway.  Keep in mind that Patrick was not yet a household name.  This was his big break.

Patsy was so full of elation she couldn't stop talking about him.  This was the moment she had been waiting for.  Patsy explained that she had raised Patrick from birth for a career in dance.  Starting at age 4, Patrick took his first dance lesson.  Patsy was thrilled at his talent.  She said that Patrick was always her best student, but she would never dream of telling him that for fear he wouldn't work as hard. 

Handsome and athletic, Patrick enjoyed success in every walk of life - sports, girls, popularity, and of course dancing.  And now all those years of preparation and training had finally paid off.  He had the lead in Grease.

Patrick Swayze was born to be a star in the world of dance. 

A wonderful picture of Patrick with his mother
 

 

As Patsy told her story, I could see that Patrick had been given every possible advantage for a career in dance... remarkable talent, good looks, good genes, excellent training from childhood, and a terrific mother who loved him and was totally dedicated to his success. 

Now we know how one prepares for a successful career in the world of dance. 

And then there was me.

As I listened to Patsy, I couldn't help but notice I was the total opposite of Patrick. 

I was a woeful dancer with no talent.  I had a pock-marked face, no confidence, and limited social skills.  I never took a single dance class in my life till I was 24.  I had absolutely no one to encourage me.  The past four years of my life had been marked with nothing but failure.  As I listened to Patsy, it was painful to realize that when compared to Patrick, I had nothing going for me. 

We understand how Patrick Swayze became a success.  He had every advantage. 

But what about me?  How does someone with no obvious advantage become a success?

I will tell you my conclusion... I believe I caught a ride on a surfboard called Destiny

Throughout my childhood and time as a young adult, my future was kept hidden from me.  However the signs were all there.

We already know one secret was the extraordinary education I received. 

We also know that one person after another stepped up at critical times to keep me from going over the edge.  Patsy Swayze was one of those people. 

We also know that I had brief glimpses of unusual talents such as teaching and a knack for creating fun that would one day come in handy.

And yet all I ever knew was disappointment.  My dream of sports success was ruined by a blind eye.  My hope of becoming an accepted member of my high school class was ruined by the acne.  My hope of becoming a therapist was crushed by my personality defects.  My secret plan to get a girlfriend through social dancing was sabotaged by my total inability to learn how to dance. 

I was thrown out of graduate school in 1974.  Three years later at the start of 1977, I was still completely lost.  I was mediocre in every possible way... I still had no girlfriend, I was stuck in a dead-end job, and I was going nowhere.

But you know what?  During those three years, no matter how bad I was at dancing, I had the strangest feeling I should continue.  So I absolutely refused to give up my dance project despite little encouragement.

Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, in 1977 I caught fire.

 


SUBCHAPTER 102
- THE LAST WORD

 

There is a wonderful saying:  "Failure is the mother of success."

A man I admire greatly had a very interesting thing to say about his own failures.  Very few people know that Winston Churchill was directly responsible for one of the worst defeats in British history, a horrible disaster known as Gallipoli during World War I.  Churchill was blamed for the deaths of many brave young men who died in a manner similar to the men charging the beach at D-Day.  These men never had a chance. 

When the papers learned of Churchill's role in the disaster, he was roundly condemned for something tantamount to incompetence... a criticism this proud man surely was unaccustomed to.  Churchill was immediately fired.  

Humiliated, full of guilt, and ashamed, Churchill considered himself a complete failure.  He assumed his career was over.  Fortunately, he later changed his mind.  Although he spent many of the following years in political isolation, he didn't give up. 

25 years after Gallipoli, Winston Churchill was brought back as Prime Minister.  It was 1940 and Hitler was on the doorstep.  This was Great Britain's darkest hour.  Amazingly, Churchill suddenly caught fire.

Churchill was 65 years old at the time, not the age one would expect a man to hit his stride.  An American journalist wrote this observation in 1941:

"The responsibilities which are Churchill's must be greater than those carried by any other human being on earth. With disaster looming, one would think such a weight would have a crushing effect upon this man.   Not at all.

The last time I saw him, the Battle of Britain was raging.  With Nazi bombers leveling London on a nightly basis, he looked twenty years younger than before the war began.  His uplifted spirit was transmitted to the people. 

Churchill's speeches became a great inspiration to the embattled British.  When he told the people the British would never give up no matter what, Churchill completely electrified the entire nation."

Winston Churchill's brilliance is credited with rallying Great Britain from what seemed certain defeat at the hands of Nazi tyranny. 

In his memoirs Churchill had this to say about the day he received his appointment to Prime Minister in 1940.

I felt as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life
had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. 

I thought I knew a good deal about it all

I was sure I should not fail.  
 

 

As for me, I could have said the exact same thing about my dance career. 

While I hardly compare my own modest accomplishments to those of one of the greatest men in history, Churchill's words parallel exactly what passed through my mind.

Following the graduate school debacle, I wandered around completely lost for three years.  And yet the moment I began to teach dance, my dance career took off with the explosive power of a dormant volcano erupting back to life. 

The day I began to teach dance for the first time, I knew this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.  Furthermore, I quickly realized that all my past life experiences had uniquely prepared me for this opportunity.

It did not matter that I wasn't given the advantages and talents of Patrick Swayze.  It turned out that the talents I did have were perfect for my situation. 

I discovered that teaching, my one true talent, came in very handy.  When it came to encouragement, patience, and understanding, I was highly perceptive.  I intuitively knew when to compliment, when to tease and when to back off.  From the moment I started, I was a natural.  

I was also a born camp counselor.  I wasn't the best teacher or dancer there at the start, but because I took my students with me to the Discos after class, we all got better together.  During these trips, my students developed a real loyalty to me.  They stuck with me during my learning phase because I had an uncanny ability to create fun opportunities for the entire dance class.  The group spirit that emerged led directly to the success of my growing dance studio.

I discovered empathy, a talent born of adversity, helped immensely.  I cared deeply about my students.  I would go to any length to help them.  If they struggled, I told them how I had struggled too.  They believed me and they stuck with their dance lessons till it began to click.

No, I didn't have the kind of training that Patrick Swayze had.  However, like Winston Churchill, it turned out that every failure in my own life had prepared me for this eventual success. 

All my failures, all my disappointments, all my clumsy attempts to learn to dance didn't matter any more.  Suddenly my handicaps became strengths.  My own weakness at dance taught me patience with my students.  My lifetime of disappointments taught me empathy.  I was living proof of the value of persistence.  "If Rick can do it, anyone can do it"

In a very sneaky way, every problem I had ever faced seemed to have prepared me for this moment. 

I was convinced that my dance career had been my Destiny all along.

I had finally found what I was meant to do.

 


CHAPTER THIRTY: CONCLUSION

 

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