It’s something you look for but never find. If you do it right, it finds you. From people who never pick up a book to legendary authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson the journey to find your place in life is all part of the path to somewhere else.
Emerson wrote, “Successful people live well, laugh often, and love much. They’ve filled a niche and accomplished tasks so as to leave the world better than they found it while looking for the best in others, and giving the best they have.”
In these few words, you could find meaning in almost every vocation if you took the time to look.
As a teacher, the first decade in the classroom brought exactly what I was looking for in a career, a niche to accomplish tasks and leave the world a better place. In that profession, making the world better by preparing the eager, energetic youth of whatever community I was teaching in to face the moving target of a world that was changing rapidly around them.
But in the middle and last decades of my academic teaching career, it became harder to keep that focus and maintain that comfortable niche. It wasn’t the kids. Kids never change. They’re irrational, irresponsible, erratic, and prone to bouts of extreme behavior. I love working with teenagers.
What changed came from above, in an endless stream of retraining attempts, value clarification, and other inane distractions that tried to take the great teachers I worked with away from their unique classroom styles and force all of us into a one size fits all robotic model.
It was doomed to failure.
Many times in those later years I was told I wasn’t a team player because I didn’t want to waste yet another day on learning how we’re all the same, with the same talents and gifts, how grades are meaningless since no matter the effort every child gets to the same place academically, and perhaps my favorite, a constant stream of situational ethics. I wasn’t a team player because I preferred working with students in my classroom, and athletes in the gym and on the field.
In one of the many times I was written up by one particular administrator I responded to the claim that I wasn’t a team player with what I considered the perfect response. I told the admin, “I’m the ultimate team player, I’ve blocked my entire life, I always have more rebounds and assists than points, and I don’t care if I’m not the best player. I’m just not on your team.”
I kept the write-up when the next admin arrived and asked if I wanted to take anything from my personnel file.
Last weekend I was firmly within the boundaries of my niche in the world.
Though I was not a great track athlete, I love the sport. I enjoyed coaching track as well as football and basketball during my career and loved the challenge of preparing boys and girls to compete in 18 different events, most of the time as the only coach. It seems I always had friends who stepped in to help. They might have been varsity coaches helping when I had 45 junior high kids trying to learn to hurdle, throw the discus, long jump, and high jump, or in the few years I was a varsity head coach, they were staff members who had competed in high school who came out to work on specialties. When you get quality help like that, without asking for it, you’ve found your niche.
Witnessing the stoicism of the kids of Wyoming last Thursday and Friday in the midst of one of the worst two days of state track competition I can remember, found me in my niche again.
There has been worse weather at Casper during the state track meet, but the young men and women didn’t compete in it, since it was usually postponed. This time, officials moved a few events for safety to Friday or Saturday, but the competition went on in spite of the 30-degree temperature, the sleet, the snow, the wind, and the rain that blanketed Harry Geldien Stadium.
I found a connection with these athletes, competing despite the conditions and to their credit, a dozen or so of them set new state records in their events in spite of the conditions.
It brought back another niche, the one of the working world. A time when carrying newborn calves to the barn in an April blizzard was the difference between life and death for these little bovines, a time when you had to get a job done before the rain came, and even though you often lost the race with the approaching storm you continued to work, getting soaked, so the project could go on when things dried up.
Saturday morning I found another niche in the main ballroom of the Ramkota Hotel in Casper. My friend George Abeyta was asked to be the keynote speaker at the Outdoor Writers Association of America conference. George and I share a lot of similar beliefs, and it was one of my earlier columns that had him asking me to speak to the group as part of his presentation.
Our time at the podium was cut short by a much too long introduction, but I watched the room as George delivered a powerful, positive message of compromise without surrender and his view of life.
The audience of 200 or so writers was hard to read. That’s another thing authors like Emerson, Twain, Faulkner, and Hemingway always looked for when writing, they always knew their audience. Some people didn’t like George’s patriotism and his positive view of the world it was evident on their faces.
When it came time for me to speak, I saw it too as I looked around the room, making eye contact with the audience as I spoke. When I mentioned that there was a movement to remove history from America, a few heads shook in agreement, but when I continued to say that one side wants to tear down all the statues because they offend them, and the other side wants to burn books, not teach about slavery, genocide and racial injustice in our history, all the heads stopped shaking.
My message wasn’t what the far left and the far right in the crowd wanted to hear. Good, I thought, as I continued, that’s what keynote addresses are for.
It brought back one of the themes I tried to get my students to carry with them, “Comfort the afflicted but afflict the comfortable.”
Your niche is a place where you fit in, where you are accepted, not as the one in charge, but one of the many.
It was a great weekend.