May 6, 2014

Happy National Teacher Day: 3 Teachers Who Changed My Life

By Toan Lam

I think every day should be World Teacher Day. But today, I'll take this moment to honor all of the teachers on this National Teacher Day. As a university instructor, I know that I learn as much from my students as they learn from me. They too, are my teachers. We'd love to hear stories of how a teacher has impacted your life. But first, here are three teachers who have changed the trajectory of my life. I hope by sharing their stories, you too, will learn a lesson or two from them.

“When you learn, teach. When you get, give.” —Dr. Maya Angelou

Eloquent, simple, deep. This quote defines the foundation in which I live, both in my personal and professional life. I’ve had a lot of job titles in the past. My first job was selling rattan baskets at a flea market with my uncle. Then there was the movie theater, financial aid officer in college, waiter, retail cashier, instructor at the Academy of Art University and University of San Francisco, host/reporter of a PBS show, TV reporter and currently, "Chief Inspirator" of Go Inspire Go. The list goes on, but there’s an underlying theme to all of the jobs — teacher.

As a child growing up in a lower socio-economic area of South Sacramento, I had three dreams that I kept quietly inside: be a TV reporter in a big city, do anything related to PBS (PBS was a teacher of sorts — I learned English and was entertained by Sesame Street, Reading Rainbow and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood), and be a teacher. Dreams I was embarrassed to share because they weren't the American dreams my parents had for me.

Looking back, I can’t help but get chills writing this blog. Why? Because, despite my sordid start, I achieved all three dreams (and more) by the age of 30. When I was 10, I remember how I had thought that my voice DID NOT matter. Who would want to listen to this Chinese boy’s message? What did I have to say that was of worth anyway? I didn’t think I had a message or a gift to give anyone.

Little did I know that I would manifest my dreams ten-fold. Yes, I am literally a teacher at the university level, but I feel like I'm teaching and learning from every facet of my life as the founder of Go Inspire Go and through our Go Inspire Go "Community Heroes" Youth Lesson on Compassion program.

I believe everyone we meet are our teachers — everybody! The nice, and even not so pleasant folks, teach us something and add value to our lives. I had many teachers along the way. Here are three who impacted my life personally, professionally and spiritually.

1. Ma (my grandmother)

Ah Ma was my father’s mother who helped raised us. She struggled more than anyone I’ve ever met. She lost her husband in her early 20s, fled China and became homeless with three children. She would eventually outlive all five of her children. Throughout all the heartache and challenges, she always seemed to embody a sense of joy. I remember being by her side throughout my childhood soaking in her grandmotherly wisdom. She instilled morals, values and life lessons through her stories, wounds and words. She taught me to be kind, humble and live in balance. She was my first hero.

Toan Lam and his grandmother

2. Carolyn Weber

Carolyn is a tall, beautiful, wickedly intelligent woman who was an assistant professor at my alma mater, the University of San Francisco. She was the first person to validate my obsession with the art of human connection, creative writing and helped me discover my gift for connecting with people through conversation.

Growing up with immigrant Asian parents who wanted me to be a “doctor, lawyer, engineer” was stressful. Secretly, I wanted to do something with words instead. I wanted to become a writer, journalist and teacher. When I was younger, I would often read the words on shampoo bottles aloud in the shower: “Rinse, lather, repeat.” I would read my favorite children’s books aloud, pretending to give each one a unique voice. I would dream that one day, I could tell everyone stories for a living and use the power I knew I had to help people realize their own power.

Carolyn Weber
Taking Carolyn’s class ignited the power inside of me. I remember the first assignment: write a one-page paper about a moment in your life that changed you. I don’t remember what I wrote about — that’s how petrified I was that she would expose me. Scenarios played in my 20-something-year-old head as to how she would react and rip me a new one. I feared that she would tell me that I didn’t belong in her class.

The next week, I sauntered to her class, palms sweaty, heart beating, blurred vision. She handed me the paper and in perfect red penmanship it read, “You are such a gifted and lively writer. What will you do with your talents?”

For the first time in my life, someone validated my passion and my gift, which became an integral part of my life’s work.

3. Oprah

Although I haven’t met Lady O (yet), she has had a huge impact on my young self. As a kid, I didn’t see any Asian male TV hosts and very few Asian males on TV. I remember watching most of her shows, even the ones that didn’t resonate with me (like the “Are you wearing the wrong bra?” episode) so I could study the way she read the prompter and connected to her viewers and audience. It didn’t seem like she was reading, rather, it seemed she was just talking to us.

I realized that she wasn’t in the business of TV. Her show was the vehicle to deliver the stories to her fans. She was in the business of connecting people. It didn’t seem to matter whether she was interviewing celebrities like Julia Roberts or a homeless, transgendered person. She still made you feel their pain and celebrate their triumphs.

She taught me about being my authentic self, having the courage to follow my passion and to use my talents — and platform — to serve humanity. The trajectory of my life changed after hearing her say, “Once you know, you can’t pretend you don’t.” Those words planted the seed for what I do today.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned was: If you give yourself permission to dream, dare to follow your passion and set your intentions into action, you manifest what Oprah says is the “fullest expression of yourself.”

I think the highest honor and the biggest gift you can give to others is to teach them something that’s added value to your life. It is then that the gift will be regifted. I learned that you don't have to be rich or famous to make a difference. Although it would be fabulous to say, "You get a car, and you get a car." LOL.

I have the best job in the world through Go Inspire Go. I discover everyday heroes, tell their authentic stories and leverage social media so that my viewers discover and use their true powers to help others. It’s because of these phenomenal teachers in my life that I’ve become my fullest self. I’ve found joy. That’s why I teach and that’s why I give. It doesn't get better than that!

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