Lesson of the Day, by Hal O’Leary

Lesson of the Day, by Hal O’Leary

It’s Saturday, it’s time for a lesson, time for Hal O’Leary

Lesson of the Day, by Hal O'Leary

“The Difficult Lesson” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

To understand the lesson for today that I hope will be of benefit to at least some of those who may not have yet found themselves, let me acquaint you with my own lengthy search for an identity that had escaped me for almost half of my life.

Following the big war, WWII, I was given a choice. I could find a job, or I could actually be paid to go to college under the GI Bill. Unqualified for anything but the most menial and distasteful jobs, I elected the latter. I applied to West Liberty State College just outside of Wheeling, WV. I recall vividly that the Dean of Students took one look at my high school transcripts, looked up at me and solemnly intoned, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“No,” I said, You have to take me.”

“That’s true,” he scoffed, “but we don’t have to keep you.”

And, they didn’t. At the end of my sophomore year, having exhausted all the literature and theatre courses, I became a college dropout, never to return as a student. I say, “as a student,” because I did in fact return to college some twenty years later but this time, as a teacher. This, however was not until after I had spent twenty years of failure as a salesman. But, finally I was hired by Oglebay Institute, a private arts organization, to be what I was always intended to be, a teacher. With my dismal high school and college record, such an option never occurred to me, so, It really wasn’t until then that my life began, as they say, at forty.

Then, at some point following that, a dear friend phoned me to request that I call the Dean of Faculty at Bethany College where he was teaching. He told me that they were in need of a speech teacher and that he had recommended me for the position. Laughingly, I had to tell him that, as a college dropout, I had no degree of any kind, but he insisted and I did call. After explaining to the Dean that I had no degree, he simply asked if I could teach speech to which I said I could. He said that that was all they were interested in. I then told him that I was in the midst of developing a theatre program for the Oglebay which I would not like to give up. Thus It was, that after assuring both the College Dean and the Institute’s Executive Director that I could handle both jobs, amazingly, I found myself back in college as one of the happiest of men.

I tell you all this in an effort to help you understand that if one is to find true happiness, it will be because, as I had found, you have first to find yourself. Only then can you determine precisely what pursuits in life have the possibility of providing the happiness to which we are all entitled. Most unhappiness in our society comes from the ignorance of what it is we are best suited for. Thus, let me reinterpret a line from Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true.” for only then can you find fulfillment.

The second year of my tenure at Bethany I was, proudly, one of a few faculty members chosen to undertake the development of a new freshman orientation course designed to help the incoming freshmen learn to learn so to speak. We were free to design the course in any discipline and along any lines we wished. Being a theatre person, I was familiar with Herb Gardner’s wonderful play, A Thousand Clowns. The play involves the antics of two very different brothers. One, Murray, a radical hedonist and the other, Arnold, a straight-laced-play-by-the-rules kind of guy. Murray has found himself in custody of a fourteen-year-old nephew abandoned by his footloose sister. The welfare people were threatening to remove the child and Murray and Arnold constantly argue over their different life styles and whether Murray with his questionable habits is indeed a fit role model for an impressionable child. Murray. of course, dominates the conversations until at one point, he relents and tells Arnold that he now has the floor. Taken by surprise, Arnold can only respond by saying that whatever Murray may think of him and his life style, he is, ”the best possible Arnold Burns.”

That phrase haunted me, and with it in mind, I initially chose to title my new orientation course at Bethany, I Am The Best Possible Arnold Burns. It was later shortened to simply Introduction To Yourself, for that is what it was designed to do, to introduce the student to himself in an effort to help him discover, as I had done, just who and what he
might have been intended to be and do.

It was naturally a first semester course, and in the beauty of a fall that can be found only in Bethany West Virginia we could often assemble out of doors. I developed an interesting exercise for my freshmen. Since the class met for two hours and the woods surrounding the campus afforded an ideal site, I would have the students go off entirely alone, out of sight and sound of anyone and be totally by themselves for the two hours. While there were some protestations before going, on returning, most would admit to some benefit, as one of them said, “It was like looking at a mirror image of my mind.”

One of the most vociferous protesters of this exercise was a young man named Sam. Sam, whose father was a globe-trotting business man had been reared in all the big cities of the world. You can imagine that the small college town of Bethany for him must have been just a little short of traumatic.

“Hal,” he said, “this is the most ridiculous thing I have ever been asked to do. You actually expect me, city bred Sam, to go out with nothing but trees and be by myself for two solid hours?

“That’s what I expect Sam.” I replied.

“But Hal, he cried, “The only time I’m ever by myself, is when I’m asleep.”

“Then it will be an entirely new experience for you, won’t it? I queried.

“An experience I don’t need and don’t want. , , Hell,” he said “I’d be bored to death.” and he started to walk away.

“Sam,” I called, “It would be a shame to fail this course over a little thing like this.”

Stopping in his tracks, he said, “You wouldn’t”

“Probably not,” I offered, “but come on Sam, it won’t hurt you. Everyone else is going.” And then, the class joined in persuading Sam that he should join them. So, off they went.

When they returned two hours later, I was very interested to learn how Sam made out. I took him aside and asked him how it went.

“Just like I said,” he scowled with exasperation, “Hal, for two solid hours, I was bored to death.”

It was then that Sam learned the intended lesson for the day. It was not that he would suddenly and miraculously discover a Sam he had never known but only that he might learn how little he knew of that Sam.

“All I learned,” he moaned, “was that it was boring, boring, boring.”

“So, who were you bored with Sam?” I asked.

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Hal O’Leary is an eighty-seven-year-old Secular Humanist who believes that it is only through the arts that one is afforded an occasional glimpse into the otherwise incomprehensible. He has been awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from West Liberty University.

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