At his first competition, senior Henry Huang, at seven-years-old, approached the piano bench unblinking; he wiped his cold hands on his pants feeling the adrenaline course and his legs slightly wobble.
In a dash, Huang’s hands moved deftly to the instrument. After months of practice, the keys bounced naturally and precisely in an intense outpour of energy.
“All I’d be thinking about was, ‘Oh, let me get first place.’” Huang said.
Despite Huang playing longer and harder pieces than his peers, he did not place first, mainly because of his tendency to let his nerves dictate and rush his speed. At one competition, Huang ranked third, but that was no where close to satisfying the ego of a determined seven-year-old. After a string of disappointing results, Huang became consumed by rankings. He wanted to prove his ability to his mother and peers; he aimed for gold and gold alone.
At age 12, he struck his prize. Huang became a dominating pianist in Arkansas and won his first state champion title. From then on, judges presented trophy after trophy to his delight. The shelf became decorated in shiny gold, metal cups and plastic prizes.
By middle school, Huang, once a naive, excited boy, matured into an internationally placing pianist selected for exclusive opportunities such as YoungArts piano camp at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute. But after the initial gratification, he realized sparkly trophies and recognition were all he played for. Standing at the top, Huang was as confused as ever.
“I would be lying if I said [I always loved piano],” Huang said. “I sort of lost [the love for piano] because I only liked it because I was winning stuff. I didn’t like it because I loved playing piano.”
RBHS biology teacher Kerri Graham was at a crossroads leaving high school. Graham loved science but wasn’t sure what career path to pursue. Choosing one only reminded her of the benefits of others.
“I was really struggling between my idealistic side and my practical side,” Graham said. “I loved all things science and medicine, so I thought I was either going to be a doctor or a physical therapist.”
Graham eventually decided to become a physical therapist after her acceptance to Marquette University’s physical therapy program. But the science classes were easy, and another path began to emerge. Theater was Graham’s other love and by her sophomore year, although she was still in the physical therapy program, she became a theater major.
Approaching graduate school fast but with diverging passions, Graham remained uncertain and reluctant about her career trajectory of physical therapy. RBHS crisis counselor Leslie Thalhuber said when one is in a slump, it’s important to reframe his/her thought processes.
“The ways we think that are unhelpful to our life may lead to apathy, depression and anxiety,” Thalhuber said. “We start by changing the thought, the automatic thought, and once we are able to start changing our thoughts, we change our feelings [and] behaviors. It’s all connected.”
But changing the automatic, habitual thought is hard and takes effort, Thalhuber said. Reflection is especially important when changing a mindset. For Huang, he finally remembered the awards and accolades were not the reason he initially wanted to play piano.
Huang didn’t begin piano a traditional way where parents urge their unwilling toddlers to go to a lesson. Like any typical seven-year-old, Huang surfed channels on the television. He was on the lookout for cartoons when he stumbled across a pianist playing what he called “a lit mixtape,” and the effortlessness of the musician drew him in. The attraction was instantaneous.
“I told my mom I want to play the piano, and my mom was like,‘This kid is just joking around. I don’t believe him,’” Huang said. “And then the next day I was, like, crying and throwing a temper tantrum. I was like, ‘Mommy, I want to play piano!’”
Huang’s mother warned him learning an instrument would require a hefty input of time and was not a decision he should make on a whim. But even after his mother’s caution, Huang’s fire remained. And so his mother caved and bought him an electric piano.
Huang had a lot of catching up to do, but he was delighted to begin, so every day he practiced for more than an hour. While Huang admits to possess a natural affinity for piano, he believes it was his passion and persistence that elevated him above the competition.
Huang wanted to return to the days where he would play for his own enjoyment, not in stress caused by his upcoming competition. He talked to his mother and realized, contrary to his original belief, she only wanted him to try his best and love playing. At the words of his mother, Huang felt relieved and after middle school his mindset changed. He focused on satisfying himself, not the judge, because piano, like all art forms, is subjective, Huang said.
“You can’t focus on the results too much,” Huang said. “No matter how much you worry, the judge isn’t going to go, ‘Oh, my, gosh, [Huang] is so worried. He got a heart attack as soon as he got on stage. I think we should give him first.’”
Now in confidence, Huang approaches the bench with determined eyes. He wipes his hands on his pants, but there is no shaking. As he sits, there is a moment of pause to prepare the audience. Then with an unwavering hand and spirit, he pounces perfectly on the first key, captivating his audience. The reverberations settle and he continues unexpectedly in a natural, artful flow. He caresses the notes and sways with the music while the judge smiles.
“We need other people to help us,” Thalhuber said. “If we had all the answers then we wouldn’t be in [a negative] situation.”
Fatefully, in the summer between her junior and senior year of college, Graham received an opportunity to be the resident choreographer for a high school theater workshop. During her time teaching at the camp, she felt even more unsure of continuing down her current career path. She phoned her parents, spoke with the dean of physical therapy and finally decided switching from physical therapy to teaching was the best course of action.
“My passion is people and helping people whatever way I can help them, so initially it wasn’t even that biology was my passion. Medicine was my passion because I wanted to help people, and I was good at science,” Graham said. “I like science, but the pursuit of science was never my passion; it was using it to help people. That was my passion. So teaching became another way I was able to share my passion of helping others but just in a different venue.”
Graham said she values the relationships she builds with students. In her experience, the most profound impact she can make on a student goes far beyond just teaching science.
“[The] whole purpose [of being a teacher] is doing my part in helping my students be the best versions of themselves, so that’s number one,” Graham said. “Number two, [is]helping them be critical thinkers, collaborators, communicators and how [to] interact with the world. And the third is by golly there is some really cool science to learn.”
By refocusing, working smarter and just as hard, Graham grew to be more excited and passionate about teaching each year. Graham admitted teaching, like all professions, has moments of stress and difficulty, they are insignificant compared to the joy and fulfillment she finds. But her self actualization comes from more than just her career, and Graham said to be a well-rounded happy person, vocation doesn’t have to be a person’s entire life.
“It doesn’t have to necessarily always be your one true passion in life that you hit,” Graham said. “I have a lot of passions, and I landed on a job that allows me to do a lot of that. But there would have been a lot of careers that would have allowed me to do that. If I had pursued medicine, I know I would have loved my life, also.”
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