Turning Point in a Fragile Life

By Mike Latham ’86
The following essay was printed in the “Chasing the Light” column in Midweek.

We are all fragile creatures, and it is from this weakness, not despite of it, that we discover the possibility of true joy. – Desmond Tutu

When I was 24, I was hit by a drunk driver. My car rolled one-and-a-half times before stopping upside down on California’s Interstate 5. Miraculously, I escaped with only a cut on my arm and a mild concussion, but I was shaken to the core.

That evening, I stood in front of my closet and imagined what would have happened if I hadn’t made it home. What might it be like for my parents to fly to California to pack up the clothes of their dead son? I felt a combination of paralyzing fear, deep sadness and a gnawing uncertainty about my future.

At the time, i was a Ph.D. student in American history at UCLA. Having had such a close brush with death, I found myself wondering, “What should I do with my life?” I emerged from despondency with a determination to reorient and refocus my life. But to what end? Time and time again, I came back to my experience right after college of teaching a summer course in American history at ‘Aiea High School. My students came from a wide range of backgrounds, and it was a challenge for a 22-year-old, but I loved teaching them. They were eager learners and soon appreciated how historical events had relevance to today’s issues.

It had given me great satisfaction to witness the impact that knowledge can have on someone. I realized what I truly cared about was education. What could be more satisfying than helping someone reach their full potential?

I became a history professor, a college dean and recently returned to Hawai‘i to lead Punahou School, the institution I graduated from. I can’t say that I would recommend a dangerous accident to anyone. However, I am grateful for the deep reflection that resulted from this traumatizing event. Realizing how fragile life is can sometimes give us the courage to pursue the life that is best for us.

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