One of my earliest memories is when I was about four years old. Running through our kitchen, which was absolutely verboten, I brushed up against a beautiful plate that Mom displayed on the breakfast room hutch. I almost knocked it to the floor, but she snatched it in midair — right before it stopped being Spode and started being Smithereens.
“ELLIOT DAVID!” my mom exclaimed. We all know middle names were invented only to let kids know when they’re in BIG trouble. “You almost broke my favorite china. Now I’m going to have to hide it away. That’s your last run in here, and I mean it.” Since my dad owned Midwestern Ladies Hosiery Company, any kind of “run” was a dirty word in the Engel household.
Hey, quit booing; nobody’s forcing you to keep reading.
This little incident caused me all sorts of confusion a few weeks later when I went next door to visit my older friend, Andy. I found him with a shovel digging quite a big hole in his backyard, near a flower garden where the soil was soft.
“Whatcha doin’?” I asked, hoping he needed an extra digger. Anything that involved getting filthy dirty was irresistible when I was four.
“I’m digging all the way down ‘til I hit China!” Andy answered excitedly.
Wait, how did Andy know where my mom had hidden her prized plate, and how cool was it that Mom had dug a hole in his yard to bury it, just like our dog Bobo! With the patience of a mature mentor (Andy was six, after all), he cleared up my confusion by explaining that China was a country, not just a dinnerware plate, and because it was conveniently located directly underneath the ground of his yard, he was tunneling down until he reached it.
“How long til we get there?” I asked. Andy paused to consider my question. “I’d say some time after lunch.” These six-year-olds knew everything. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I thought it would be easier and far more exciting to have my dad drive us there in our big black Studebaker with the cherry red interior.
It was years later in my world geography class that the professor told us that the point on the planet exactly opposite the United States is not China but is actually in the middle of the Indian Ocean — halfway between South America and Australia. He suggested if we wanted to dig to China that we needed to begin in Chile. And then he really threw cold water on the whole venture by pointing out that we’d soon hit impenetrable iron, molten alloy, and rock.
Oh, he also pointed out that we'd be vaporized as soon as we arrived, halfway through our journey, at the earth’s core of 18,032 degrees Fahrenheit. Geez, what a killjoy.
Even though I had been gung-ho about adventuring to China with Andy, I wasn’t really much of a dreamy kid. I liked having realistic goals. My dream at a fairly young age was to become an English teacher — I was smitten with literature by the time I was twelve — and I thought everybody else should be smitten, too (preferably by my brilliantly teaching them how). But my parents thought I might want to earn a big paycheck and suggested that I should become a corporate lawyer. I could work for a really large law firm that would reward me with big bonuses.
I remember staying after school for a make-up exam in high school and then talking with my English teacher until it was time to take the late bus home. It had been Career Day, and so Mrs Kivett asked me if I had a dream career. Who better to confess my dream to than an English teacher? I told her that I dreamed of teaching English, but that I might become a lawyer since it seemed a more practical goal.
I’ll never forget her response. “Well, Elliot, don’t you think it is better to build your own dream than to be hired by someone else to help build theirs?” Suddenly the wondrous independence that we teachers enjoy in our own classrooms became a dream so very worth pursuing.
But I had to convince my mom and dad to follow my dream, not theirs. It’s true that no parents revered education more than Jewish ones, and yet mine somehow saw law as the perfect occupation for their very verbal son. Talking them into letting go of their “my son, the lawyer” dream almost seemed as impossible as shoveling through to China. But I finally won my case and got them to embrace “my son, the professor.”
As I have built my tri-part dream career of teaching, lecturing throughout the world, and producing a world of recordings, I learned one other thing about my dreams: they won’t work at all unless I do. At one point, when on leave from the university, I was delivering over 250 lectures a year. Yes, it exhausted me, but I can honestly say that I wouldn’t trade my particular dream for all the tea in…well, you know!