A touch of Proust in Amsterdam

For me, one of the most gratifying moments of our journey came in Amsterdam, where I reunited with a former student from long ago, Melynda, who moved to Utrecht in 1998 and eventually married the young man she had met while studying abroad.

Melynda is definitely in my Pantheon of all-time great students and good people – the type you feel honored to teach and delighted to get to know. She was my student at SUNY-New Paltz and in 1998 she graduated and left for The Netherlands, and I decamped to Duquesne. I hadn’t seen her since.

Melynda had a performing arts background and was a talented writer even as a student. But more than that she was curious — and pretty brassy about it, too, in a way I found both amusing and challenging.

Teachers, of course, are delighted by such students because it is clear that you have sparked some interest in a bright young person who finds you interesting and credible enough to seek you out for conversation and advice.

When I last saw Melynda, she was roughly the age of the young women traveling with my group. Now (although she looks as youthful as when I saw her last), she is a mother of three who speaks fluent Dutch, holds a Dutch passport and has made a fulfilling and happy life for herself in Utrecht, about 30 minutes down the line from Amsterdam by train.

Long ago, back at SUNY, during one of our many hallway conversations, she asked me to define “success.” I don’t recall what I answered, but I imagine it was along the lines of, “become very good at something you like to do that is worth doing.”
Then she asked me, “So, do you consider yourself successful?”

That was a little tougher to answer, and all these years later I can still recall being momentarily at a loss for words — a very rare phenomenon, I assure you. The definition of success I’d offered, it was instantly clear, was pretty narrow – focused primarily on work and, therefore, subtly (why do we work?) on money.

At the time, I had two small children, my wife worked only part time so she could be with the girls, the economy of the Hudson Valley had tanked, the pay at SUNY-New Paltz was lousy, and the state of New York usually couldn’t get a budget signed, which often meant months-long gaps in health care benefits, which is really tough when you have small children. To pay the bills and keep the wolves from the door, I was driving 140 miles round-trip twice a week to moonlight as an editor and columnist at a newspaper.

And yet.

I had wanted to be a journalist and I had been a pretty fair one, I’d like to think. I wrote a few stories that shook things up and even helped people. I wanted to get a Ph.D. and teach college, and there I was in a classroom building talking to a very bright (and charmingly impertinent) young woman who was insisting that I define and defend my value system. My daughters were (and are) lovely people, as is my wife. Our house was usually filled with fun and laughter (and still is). I had recently almost lost my father, but open-heart surgery had saved him and he is still with us in 2012. I wasn’t making coin, as the kids say today, but, “Yeah,” I said, “I think I’m doing okay.”

Fast-forward 14 years: After a stint at Bloomberg News, Melynda works in internal communications at a large bank and her husband is a public relations specialist. She sings in a soul band (I think it’s a soul band) just for fun. She’s arranged her schedule so she can spend more time with her daughters.

Those are details. The conversation we had at club Bo Cinq (where I am afraid I monopolized Melynda’s attention) revealed a vibrant young woman, still full of curiosity, full of questions about what constitutes “success” even though I don’t think the actual word came up.

We talked with pride about our children. We talked about the idea of “mindfulness.” She told me some fascinating details about the psychological profiling prospective employees must undergo to determine how they might be of the utmost value on a work team (the team approach is central to European business).

She told me one such test had given her real insight into her personality and urged me to give it a try when I got back to the states. We discovered, in speaking generally about the test, that we had a lot in common – and that each of us regularly experienced the epiphany of finding within ourselves certain traits and attitudes we did not imagine we possessed as we navigated through work and family life.

We talked about making space in life for living, and not just what few crumbs of leisure we can find around our careers. We talked about balance, and growing older and the challenges that various phases of parenting bring (her daughters are 6, 4 and 1; mine are 16 and 20). We marveled that meeting again after so long was one of those rare, and in this case very cool, time-machine moments.

I looked around at the faces of my students. Smart, nice, vivid people all, but relatively speaking also blank slates in many respects. If they were to find themselves in Bo Cinq in 14 years, or in 30 years, what choices will they have made? How will their definitions of “success” have evolved or changed altogether? What changes in technology and culture will they face? Surely there will be as many – and at a more rapid pace – than in the decades since I graduated from college.

Maybe I’ll get the chance to find out. Maybe I’ll bump into one of them right there in Bo Cinq, or some little bistro in Paris, or maybe by chance I’ll find myself seated next to one at a Pirates game (lamenting, at that point, 35 or even 50 losing seasons). I hope I do have a chance to reconnect and catch up. And if I do I hope they are doing well. I hope they figure out their own fulfilling answers to the “success” question. Maybe that concept, and the images they held in their heads of their future selves, will even change or broaden a bit since they left for Europe on May 7.

In the meantime, it was a rare privilege to resume, half-a-world away, a conversation that started in a college hallway a long, long time ago.

I had no doubt back then that the adult Melynda, were I ever to chance to meet her again, would be engaging, interesting and ever a seeker, both inward and outward.

And, of course, very successful.

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