Saturday, October 26, 2013

Defining Moments

Some people say that there are divine appointments orchestrated by fate or God himself for a person to experience. While I'm not sure that everything “happens for a reason,” I do believe in these divine appointments, or moments when two people were meant to cross paths. One such divine appointment happened to me in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in June of 2005. It was this summer that would eventually lead me to my future career path.

 For one summer I was living on a cruise ship full of students, professors, and older lifelong learners owned by the University of Virginia. It was my “Semester at Sea,” and I had packed for a summer of studying abroad in 6 different Asian countries.

Between classes aboard ship, we were able to take excursions on land for hands-on cultural experiences to supplement our textbook learning. Toward the end of the summer the ship was nearing Hong Kong, and students were busily preparing their travel plans around the island and into mainland China. My roommate and I had both purchased visas to get onto the mainland, but neither of us had bought an organized excursion. The sight I wanted to see more than anything was the collection of Terra Cotta warriors in Xi'an, and I hoped I could get there by the seat of my pants. The night before we were to dock, I heard that there was an elderly man on board who also wanted to get onto the mainland to see the Great Wall of China. When I heard that this man was 90 years old, and his only purpose for coming on the ship was to see the Great Wall before he died, I knew I needed to meet him.

That evening in the dining room I managed to get an introduction the Chief A.G. Kirchner, a tall and stately man whom 9 decades of age had not managed to wizen. He told me of his lifelong career in the navy followed by an equally full career as an educator. He was a widower and had come on this trip alone. I found out he had not left the ship at any port because he was saving his energy for the Great Wall. Unfortunately, he had not booked an excursion either. Being two of only a handful of students aboard the ship who also did not yet have plans set for our days in China, my roommate and I offered to guide “Chief” to the Great Wall and help fulfill his life goal.

The next morning we disembarked at Hong Kong, found a travel agency, booked flights into Beijing, and hailed a taxi to the airport. Grasping a copy of Lonely Planet's guide to China, I handled all of the travel arrangements and negotiating while my roommate made sure Chief was comfortable. We found a driver, who spoke no English, that took us to the Forbidden City, a restaurant that served the signature Peking Duck, historical tombs and gardens, and finally the Great Wall of China. It took some time to navigate the slippery steps of this wonder of the world, but the three of us made it to the top of Great Wall, a wonder in itself! We took photos to celebrate the occasion and made our way back to our driver.
Battling the crowds and walking the many steps and cobblestones through drizzly fog had made the trip tiring for all of us, and we opted not to fly on to Xi'an and its Terra Cotta warriors. We headed back to Hong Kong for some much needed rest aboard the ship. After all, I have years ahead of me to return to China and visit Xi'an. A picture of Chief happily atop the Great Wall made a much better lasting memory of the trip. I hadn't yet seen the famous warriors of China, but it was worth it to spend time with a great warrior who had given so much to my own country.

 Two years after the trip was over and I became a college graduate with yet again no set plans for the journey ahead, I received a phone call from Chief and his brother offering me the opportunity of a lifetime: to write a book detailing Chief's life. I flew out to California and interviewed Chief for a week to collect material. After 6 months of research and writing, Chief and I self-published his 100 page biography. On the cover was a picture I took of Chief fulfilling his dream of reaching China. 

This retired teacher had one last lesson to teach: talents and passions are meant to be shared. Throughout my time with Chief, he encouraged me to keep writing and to consider teaching. After I finished his book, I took steps to become a certified teacher, and now I get to travel through literature and history to new places every day with my students. Looking back, I can see the first steps toward my teaching career truly began at the base of the Great Wall of China.

***Update: Chief passed away on March 11, 2014 at the age of 98.  His biography, Wonder of Men by Kristen Jackson, will soon be available at the U.S.S. Houston museum exhibit, Stanford University library, University of Colorado library, and various other libraries located in places in which Chief lived, studied, or taught.

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