Yes, I can!
It’s February 2018. I’m operating a projector to show my classes the video of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launch that happened a couple of days ago. The kids are mesmerized by the fire and fury of the lift-off, the beautiful sight of the deepening blue sky bisected by the exhaust and vapor trails left by the spacecraft as it claws its way into the upper atmosphere.
Then, when the rocket stages separate and the two booster rockets make their way back to Earth, perfectly sticking their landings simultaneously, I feel just as giddy as a child myself. A few minutes later, the orbiter with the Tesla affixed emerges into the inky blackness of space, and my students erupt in amazed joy.
Throughout the video presentation, I am using a combination of small words in English and pantomimes to express to the kids that other people told Mr. Musk, “no, you can’t” do these outrageous things, like launch a car into space and have reusable booster rockets that land themselves on a pad. And in my little fantasy, Elon replied back, “Yes, I can!” And then proceeded to do it. I don’t know how much of the language they understand from me, as their vocabularies are still quite limited, but they do seem to get the point.
After the 10-minute video presentation, which lasted longer due to my interruptions, I stride around the classroom asking random students what they want to be or do when they grow up. And when little Mint says she wants to be a doctor, I point directly at her and yell, “NO! You can’t!” And she yells right back in defiance, “YES, I CAN!”
I tell 8-year-old Potter that he can’t be a scientist, and he shouts “YES, I CAN!” Little Nui speaks up. She wants to be a teacher. I smile to myself before whirling on her, denying her ability to do so. “No! You can’t!” With a mouth missing a few baby teeth, she stands up and pounds her desk while she screams, “YES, I CAN!”
Which is exactly what I want from them. My students come from hard-working families with small incomes. Many of them will be staying up late into the night while their parents operate their small food cart businesses. Their options for attending institutions of higher education are limited, which may handicap them as they strive to make a better life for themselves. I know this because I experienced it myself.
I feel a bit cynical encouraging them to follow their dreams, because the odds are stacked against them. But I also know that I do not want to miss this opportunity to plant a seed in their heads that it’s possible for them to overcome obstacles to success in their lives. But first, they must believe that they can.
After making my snap decision that I would leave my familiar life in Chicago to head out to the great unknown, I realized that I was going to have to do something uncomfortable in order for me to actually do it. I was going to have to share this decision with others. Not just with people close to me, but with everyone I knew. And not because they needed the information, but because every time I stated my intentions, it reinforced inside me that this was actually going to happen.
Most of my friends were wonderfully encouraging, and had positive things to say about my plans. A few, however, were less than enthusiastic, and began to tick off several uninformed reasons that I should not do something so crazy as to throw away the best job I ever had and the comfortable life I was enjoying to follow some outlandish dream.
Of course, this was the position that my employers took. In 2016, I booked an exploratory two-week holiday to Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. I had several friends I had met through Couchsurfing who lived in Singapore, so that was a simple decision. And I had a friend in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam who spoke English and invited me to stay with her and her husband when I visited there. So those two places were quite easy for me, as I had guides whom I both knew and understood.
Thailand was an afterthought for me. When I realized that two weeks in two cities was a bit more time than I needed, a trip to a third country made sense. I chose Thailand for its proximity and for the opportunity to do another thing that I had always promised myself: get my SCUBA diving certification. The week I spent in Thailand impressed me so much that my decision to move there was cemented. And I wasn’t willing to wait any longer.
As soon as I returned to my job in Chicago, I walked into the office where my bosses were sitting at their desks. I told them that the lease on my apartment was up in December (six months away) and that I would be leaving to move to Thailand. The stunned look on their faces was painful to see. They had always been good to me. But my resolve was firm. I was going, and that was that.
About two months before I was scheduled to depart the US, the enormity of what I was about to undertake hit me. All of a sudden, I had doubts. What if I got there and it wasn’t as expected? (I actually had no real idea of what to expect) What if I failed? What if I didn’t pass the teaching certification? What if this happened? What if that happened? I actually had a little panic attack.
Fortunately, I was able to calm myself by watching a Swedish miniseries on Netflix, “28º in February”, about three different expats who moved to southern Thailand and the struggles they overcame. Their fictional experiences based on realities reminded me of what I loved about my Thailand experience and helped me overcome my doubts.
But the main driver that pushed me against the grain of conventional wisdom and my own fears and insecurities about being agile enough to make the changes that would be necessary for me in order to thrive was the fact that I had continuously told everyone I met that I was moving to Thailand at the end of December 2016. The thought of the embarrassment I would face by backing out was worse than the fear I felt of going forward.
And I would be able to adjust. Hell, it wasn’t but a few short years before that I had walked away from the only life I knew as a Jehovah’s Witness and started fresh. And I not only survived, but flourished. I could do this crazy thing.
“Bob, are you sure? I mean, you can’t just pick up and move to some strange place on a whim.”
“YES, I CAN!”
(“But will you?”)