Good for Nothing

On my one visit to India, I have a vivid recollection of the way my wife’s Uncle Ram muttered “you stupid-idiot-good-for-nothing-nincompoop” under his breath at other drivers on the packed streets of Chennai.

“Good for nothing”.

The kind of thing my grandmother might have said about the whipper-snapper kids next door.

“Good for nothing”.

This week we were visited by Jean Rowcliffe, mother of James Rowcliffe Kessler ’09.  She has just published a memoir, The Last Tear, about her son’s battle with cancer during his senior year at The Hall and her own navigation of a difficult grief path.

On Tuesday we were treated to a standing-room-only reading in the Flood Mansion, and today she shared readings with our 9th and 10th grade CORE classes.

Of the many poignant moments, I was struck by her rendering of the story of James’ diagnosis with our students today.  When the doctor informed James of the horrific gravity of his cancer in late May of James’ junior year, he advised James to “take it easy, hang out, and eat whatever you want”.  Goof off.  Guaranteed excuse for slacking and enjoying yourself.  Be, essentially, the kind of “good for nothing” my grandmother might have chastised.

James’ immediate response to the doctor and the medical team, as noted in Jean’s book, was to say, “So what do we do about this?  Why shouldn’t I look at colleges and go to school in the fall?”  As Jean writes, the doctor “was basically telling James to go home, have fun, and prepare to die while James’ response was ‘I plan to live’”.

Throughout the last year of his life, and especially when it became clearer that he wasn’t going to live to see college, James still plugged along.  He participated in activities as Senior Class President, did his homework, wrote his papers, and took his tests and quizzes.  I was struck more than once with the sentiment that this was all for naught.  James was sword-fighting with the ocean.

Today, however, Jean explained that it was part of the ethos her own father had ingrained in her as a young girl.  “Be good, for nothing,” he told her over and over.  Do good things, and give one’s best, without expectation of getting anything in return.

James, in this sense, was being, truly, “good for nothing”.  The activities and the leadership positions?  Worthless for a college application (though he did get accepted into some great schools).  His efforts with school, and particularly his stunning final project with Mr. O’Connor’s class?  For an A that he never saw.  All that effort and hard work, for nothing in return.

In spite of dear Uncle Ram’s epithets, today’s visit with Jean showed me how wonderful it is to be “good for nothing”.  I hope that our guys, so focused on their college resume and their grades, approach their efforts with a similar ethos.  Good, in and of itself, and with no expectation of a college acceptance in return, is still good.  Even if it is for nothing.

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