Today Story Corp is asking people to thank a teacher that made a difference in their lives as part of their National Day of Listening.

I’ve been thinking of all the teachers I had during school, trying to think of one in particular that made a difference in my life. It’s not a teacher, however, that comes to mind. It’s my high school guidance counselor Mr. McDonald who I keep thinking of.

I believe that any situation is what you make of it, and I made high school a particularly unpleasant situation. There’s not a lot that accounts for my teenage angst, no real strife, lack or traumatic experiences to which I can attribute my rebellion. I just rebelled and acted out. Looking back, I understand it better than I did at the time, but honestly I had two loving parents and a wonderful childhood, so I don’t really know why I chose to act the way I did. Regardless, it created a lot of unhappiness, and I spent quite some time in Mr. McDonald’s office getting it off my chest.

His door was always open, he always listened and he never spoke to me in a condescending, authoritative or patronizing way. He gave me advice, brought my attention to things I’d failed to see before, and encouraged me to see many a situation in new light. One in particular stands out.

When I was in 11th grade, my mom decided to remarry. I wanted my mom to be happy, so I wasn’t upset about the impending marriage. It’d be more accurate to say that I just wasn’t very interested in it. I had grown so accustomed to a lack of family cohesion that I wasn’t keen on what I felt was forced family time.

My parents had divorced when I was 14, but years before that the family unit had become fractured. I did a lot with each of my parents but not a lot with both of them at the same time. I was accustomed to small, short spurts of family time. So as my mom and Craig got closer and decided to marry, there was suddenly an increased focus on bringing our families together. There were family dinners, family trips and big gatherings at the holidays.

I hated all the family time. I realize now that I was just uncomfortable in an unfamiliar situation, but I channeled that discomfort into anger directed right at my mother and my soon-to-be-step-dad.

One day, I sat in Mr. McDonald’s office and railed about how much I hated sitting down to a meal with people I didn’t even know and planned on never getting to know. My point was that beginning in my years of elementary school my own family had stopped sharing meals and now I was being forced into it with a family that I didn’t consider my own. I felt if my mom wanted to marry into this family that was her choice, but she couldn’t force me into as well.

Mr. McDonald listened to my tirade and then responded, “Maybe you should see this as an opportunity to have a family unit you wouldn’t have otherwise.”

I didn’t know how to respond, he’d cinched it up right there. Of course, both my parents (dad included) had urged me to see this as an opportunity, but I was sure they’d had ulterior, self-serving motives. Wouldn’t it just be easier if I’d go along to get along? Wouldn’t we all be happier if we were one big family? In the height of my most difficult years, when I was unhappy and nothing was easy, I wasn’t about to do anyone any favors, especially making things easier.

Mr. McDonald’s suggestion to see the opportunity came across to me a little differently. For the first time, I saw what I had to gain from this situation. Selfish, I know, but that one statement led to greater things in my life. Things that have made me a more loving, open, self-less person.

I didn’t open myself up to that opportunity right away. It took some time to grow into it. I had to see what could be and get more comfortable in this unfamiliar situation with a new family of strangers.  I’m an only child and while I have an extended family, it’s not particularly big or, save for a few relationships, tight-knit.

My step-family made it so easy right off the bat. They were warm and welcoming and never treated me as anything but a member of their family. Though not a large family, there were more people at holiday gatherings and family trips than I was used to, and they were very close. They brought my mom and I right into that without any hesitation. I was floored and often times overwhelmed, but in the 14 years since my mom married Craig I have come to see my step-family as just my family.

Mr. McDonald was right. He was so right! So many opportunities have come into my life on account of opening myself up to being a part of this family.

I have siblings, a brother and a sister. While I know the nature of our relationships is different than that of siblings who share DNA and grow up together, I am grateful for having the opportunity to know something of what it is like.

I am an aunt. I have two wonderful nieces whom I love and cherish. They bring so much light and joy into life, and they crack me up on a regular basis. It’s amazing to watch them grow, and nothing warms my heart more than hearing the words, “Aunt Jen!”

I have a set of grandparents who have been married for nearly 60 years. They are so sweet and generous, and their presence brings a richness into our lives that only a life long commitment can.

I have two wonderful, funny, fun-loving aunts who would do anything for anyone in our family. I have a different relationship with each of them, but both of them bring so much to our family! S is so adventurous and inspiring. A has a huge heart and is so thoughtful. She recently came to Norman to help me paint my living room and kitchen.

The next point always catches in my throat and stings my eyes a little, because I realize just how fortunate I am. I have been blessed with having three really wonderful, generous, loving parents. My mom and step-dad, and my dad who passed away nine years ago this December. These three people have touched my lives in ways that I’m not sure I fully realize or appreciate.

Finally, my experience as part of this tight-knit, loving family has helped me appreciate and cherish both my own blood family  and “adopted” family even more. It’s encouraged me to see how special and important family is, how fortunate I am to be surrounded by these people whose love is unconditional, whose hearts are so big and know no bounds.

My mom and step-dad at Hotel Coronado last summer. Cheers!

I have Mr. McDonald to thank for encouraging me to open my eyes and heart to the opportunity. Those few words he uttered certainly changed my life for the better.

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