Friday, September 7, 2012

The Leprechaun's Dream

Frankfurt, Germany (1983) --                                                                                                                                                     

It is a crisp Spring day as a sunny morning gives way to a mostly cloudy afternoon.  Six year old Michael is playing an intense game of tag with his two older brothers, Frank and Mark. 
This is not your typical game of tag.  The official name is “Booger Man”.  The objective, as one could guess, is to avoid being called the aforementioned “Booger Man”.  And if you are, then you need to tag somebody else to make them the new King of Boogers.  For these three brothers, on this cloudy day, there isn’t any worse thing in the world than holding this royal title.
The game continues with Frank, frantically chasing his brothers around.  He isn’t having much success.  The more he chases, the more they tease and the more upset he gets.  Soon, Frank zeroes in on his little brother Michael to end his reign as Mr. Boogs.  Unfortunately, there is no one  around with a Polaroid to capture what happened next - and there is still some debate over the specifics - but let’s just say that it ends with Frank finally “tagging” his little bro, four and half years his junior.  Into a tree.   

Ok – this incident was never chronicled by the Frankfurt press; perhaps six years before the fall of the Berlin Wall they had some bigger events to cover.  But – for the record - it doesn’t feel good to be “tagged” into a tree.  Boys will be boys and brothers will most certainly be brothers.  What looks like roughhousing and verbal jabbing is just another way of showing brotherly love.
Returning to Frankfurt…my Mom came outside when she heard me crying to see if I was ok and to figure out what was going on.  I wanted to keep playing so it was less about being a tattletale and more about brushing off the pain so she wouldn’t prematurely end our fun.  She asked if I was hurt and Frank was the first to answer that I was fine.  I lied and said I was ok, too.  My Mom was about to walk back into the house but then she saw a line of something running down the side of my face.  It was blood.  My ear had been split open.


Can’t say I remember much about being at the doctors, getting stitches or how long it took my ear to fully heal.  If you look closely, you can still see the scar.  But there is one thing that I do remember very clearly.  As we rode the bus to the Army Hospital - all I kept saying to my Mom over and over (probably rather hysterically) was, “Am I going to die, Mom?  I don’t want to die…I want to be a teacher.  Can I still be a teacher!?”

Michael, early 80s..

Some kids wanted to be a fireman.  Or maybe a baseball player.  When I was six, I wanted to be a teacher.  Now, I was only six, so I doubt I understood the higher meaning of teaching like helping young minds grow and giving them the skills to really flourish when they are older.   Instead, I thought grading papers was the coolest thing ever and I just loved the thought of growing up and being able to help so many people learn so many new things.  As I rode the bus that day, my biggest concern was whether I’d still live to see the day that I grew up to be a teacher.



Years later, I never lost the desire to be a teacher but my love of numbers (i.e., sports statistics) won out and when I applied to Virginia Tech, I did so as an Accounting major.  After graduating and entering the professional world it was a long path from Corporate Tax at Capital One to Product Management at USAA.  Along the way, I’d always jump at opportunities to help new team members get acclimated at work, be a mentor to interns or younger staff; whatever stoked the teaching spirit I still had burning in me.

In 2003, after working at Capital One for five years, Angela and I moved across the country to join USAA’s Tax group.  I always knew that Tax wasn’t where I saw myself forever.  It was a fantastic vehicle to learn about and understand some of the complex inner workings of a company’s financials.  But my heart rested elsewhere.  Where?  I’m not sure I ever solved that riddle entirely but one thing I clearly knew is that it wasn’t in Tax.
Working in the corporate world might not have fulfilled my childhood dream (does it for anyone?) but I truly did enjoy it every day.  The smile you saw me carry around – that wasn’t fake.  That’s not to say there weren’t a few challenging days sprinkled into my 11 year corporate career (~15, including internships).  I remember one of these moments as if it was just yesterday.

About two years into my job at USAA, I was in a funk and didn’t know why.  As I sat in a conference room, trying to focus on the speaker, feigning interest in the obvious axioms the consultant was reciting, I sank even lower.  Is this what I wanted?  Scanning the room, it reminded me of your typical high school classroom.  Replace the image of teenagers surviving another day until gradation with professional adults counting down the hours until it was time to go home and you are left with very similar results. 
The kid struggling to stay awake is now the professional getting in a quick nap.  The teenager’s passing notes to each other are now sending texts, asking where to go for lunch or perhaps laughing about the dozing colleague.  Some are taking copious notes.  Others look like they are taking notes but are actually working on homework for another class or a business case for another project (or a list of errands they hope to get to after work).  The teenager who raised his hand to ask a question with the sole purpose of increasing his participation grade is now speaking up to appear engaged in the hopes of impressing his or her manager.     


As I sat there, although I was amused by the scenery, I was also saddened by the emptiness that filtered in.  Is this it?  Is this what my future holds?  More ritualistic meetings with empty words, eyes glazed over, minds wandering elsewhere while heads involuntary nod in approval of the subject at hand…really?  And then, out of nowhere, it dawned on me.  It was time for a change.  At that moment, there was only one thing that made sense to me, raising my spirits and giving me hope a different tomorrow.  It was one of those rare moments of clarity that we have in life – I wanted to be a teacher.

I went home that night and told Angela.  It was as if I was retelling the dreams of my youth, because I was.  It wasn’t long before I was researching what opportunities existed in San Antonio and what career/educational changes would be required to realize my boyhood aspirations of being a teacher.  I’m a part-time dreamer but full-time realist. 
Meanwhile, when I had this teaching epiphany, I had also just committed to the M.B.A program, sponsored by USAA, at the University of Texas at San Antonio.  Additionally, a new career opportunity presented itself at USAA and I was quick to realize that the timing just wasn’t right. 

I moved forward with my education and career hoping that one day the timing would be right.  My “a-ha” moment remained as my own little secret, a get-away island to carry me through those days that never seemed to end.  Maybe one day I’d gravitate towards a position at USAA with a heavy focus on educating...or perhaps, someday, after I retired I could work part-time, helping out at a school, teaching history or math.  How and when it worked out was minor to my larger hope that one day I would teach in some form or fashion.


This was all before the numbness started.  The vision problems.  The falls down the stairs.  The pains, the tingling and everything else that accompanied my diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.  Accepting that I had MS wiped out many dreams and left little time to think of new ones.  I was now in survival mode, adapting to each new struggle or symptom I faced.
Testing out canes, wearing an eye patch while working from home, battling fatigue so severe that, even with medication, it hindered my ability to make it through an entire workday* and trying out another medication to help ease the tightness and pain so I could get a good night of sleep.

(*)Sometimes, if you were unlucky, you might have seen me at work splashing water on my face or giving it a few smacks in an attempt to keep myself alert during the day.
But, life, I believe, has a way of working out.  I’m not going to be a teacher, at least not in the way I envisioned.  But, truth be told, that probably was never going to happen, anyway.  My career was going well and with a growing family it is doubtful I would have risked it all by shifting direction so radically.  Dream big but dream smart.  And, in retirement, it’s much more likely that instead of teaching, Angela and I would have spent time traveling and enjoying our grandchildren, much as my parents do now.

Here I am, almost a year removed from my corporate career and it has again dawned on me that all of those closed doors and extinguished dreams that came with MS have left a beautiful, almost magical, opportunity. The years ahead will no doubt be a struggle, as my children grow older and my MS continues to progress.  But I won’t be going to any meetings, away on any business trips, or frantically working on an important presentation to be made the next morning.  Instead, the energy I do have will be directed towards guiding Vincent and Gianna as they grow and start their own path in academics and everything else that life brings.  I will be their teacher. 

It’s not an ideal situation, I’ll never have the energy I wish I could have, but life is never ideal.  The reality is I’ll be around my children a lot more than I would have if I was in my previous career.  Back then an average work day usually started before they awoke, ended with me getting home with the kids already asleep and that night's homemade dinner cold, on a plate waiting for me to re-heat in the microwave.  Sometimes, I’d hope that the noise and commotion of me arriving back home would wake Vincent or Gigi up, just so I could get a glimpse of them – a reminder of why I went to work that day. 

So now, I’m a writer.  MS Ambassador.  And full-time teacher to our two little blessings. I hope to instill in them my belief that you can be anything you want – but while you take that journey – it will be a lot richer, if you are doing it with a smile


In my writings, I often speak to the hidden gifts that I have discovered with having MS.  As I do, I worry that I might come across as too rosy to the reader – almost not a real person – and become a happy go lucky caricature of myself that doesn’t mope, get angry or cry.  I’ve said it before – having MS sucks…it really sucks – but, as they say in business school, that is a “sunk cost”, I have MS and it’s not going anywhere, so to borrow from songwriter Tom Petty:

It's time to move on, time to get going
What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing
But under my feet, baby, grass is growing
It's time to move on, time to get going

And that’s what I’m doing, moving on and finding the positives that are always out there, in every story, every problem we face…that happy ending.  It’s there, it always is. 

In May 2008, at first glance I saw was an impish leprechaun dressed up as a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis but not far around the corner was a hidden rainbow and a pot of gold.  Six year old Michael wasn’t derailed by a trip to the emergency room and nearly thirty years later, his dream hasn’t ended - it’s only begun.



  1. Love it, mike!!! Thanks so much for sharing. You're also a great teacher to your friends :-)~anick

  2. I think that you have another dream in you. You write so well & so deacriptively. How about writing for young adults & giving them something to ponder thru storytelling. The world is not getting any easier for the next generation. Maybe a little direction from a good storyteller wouldn't hurt. You would be a wonderful mentor. Love Aunt Kathy

  3. Ha! Ha! Love how you describe our meetings in the tax department which hasnt changed one are not missing anything. Had to catch up with your writing Mike which you do so well. We do miss you and know that you are doing a great thing for those who do have MS because they may be going thru the same thing and for those who don't understand MS like myself. Keep writing buddy and stay strong! Tell Angelia I said Hi! Your friend and ex co worker...Dee


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