Moving Forward

Moving Forward
Susan Vernon—Elementary School Teacher

I am so honored to be here. I really feel humbled to the point where I'm feeling a little emotional about it. I came to India under some circumstances that I'm going to share in my story. To be speaking to you is an honor. 

So I spent a huge amount of my life in New Mexico. New Mexico is actually a state in the United States. It's above Mexico, but it is part of the US and it has some incredible Native American culture. This is a storyteller. It's a clay figurine showing wisdom being passed on, and I don't know how much wisdom I have to share, but I felt really blessed to have that image as kind of motivating me to tell my story. 

When I was growing up, my parents wanted me to be happy. I bet your parents wanted you to be happy. My parents did everything they could. They got me a great education, an Ivy League education. They supported me. They encouraged me. And even with all of that I discovered, and maybe you have already discovered this, too: there's a lot of loss in life. We sometimes lose important people. Maybe somebody moves away or passes away. What we really wanted to make happen, just doesn't happen, so loss could be as simple as losing a dream or losing a friend. 

I'm going to share a story of loss in my life that had to do with being a business owner. I owned a beautiful property in New Mexico. It was called Casa de las Chimeneas, which means House of the Chimneys. I worked on developing this boutique hotel for about 29 years. The property made the Conde Naste Gold List, which is very prestigious in the travel industry. For much of the time, my hotel was a predictable business. I had maybe 88% occupancy. You go talk to a hotelier about that kind of occupancy and they'll be drooling because that's very good occupancy. Things were going along very well. And then…some stuff happened. 

One thing that happened was there was a huge fire in Los Alamos, which is near where my hotel was and it's where a national lab is in the US. They have a lot of stored nuclear waste so you can imagine the impact of a big forest fire near stored nuclear waste. People are like, “I'm not going anywhere near that place.” Even though the government kept assuring people that there was no problem, there was a fear factor. It took a year to get over that, so I lost some business. Then we all had 911 (September 11, 2001) in the US. 911 was unbelievably devastating to the core of the American spirit. People felt vulnerable. People didn't want to travel, that was devastating, but still, I was doing all right.

Then came some financial things…There was a housing crash due to some terrible practices in the mortgage lending industry. Lenders were enticing people with very tempting interest rates that had trigger points where the interest rates would go up. Lenders were enticing people who really should never have been given a loan. So that was awful. There was a collapse of a large insurer, an insurer so large that the government felt they had to bail them out. And then that precipitated yet another housing crisis, and we ended up in a huge recession. So all of a sudden I found myself feeling like a speck of dust in a hurricane or whirlwind. I felt very powerless. 

My first reaction to this series of financial crises was to deny them. I was like, “I've been through recessions before. I've had this business for a long time. Everything's going to be great.” Well, that didn't work so well. And so, after the denial phase, I moved to rejection mode. I told myself, “The outside forces won't affect me.” I had this kind of feeling if I could just say that enough, I could push it back and make the business come back. Well, that didn't work either. Then I got to the point of despair where it's just like, “Woe is me. It's never going to get better. I'm going to go bankrupt.” I had all that kind of pity talk, self-pity talk. Then finally, I got to this stage called Acceptance. Now acceptance is actually not a fun stage at all, but it's the stage that allows you to move forward. So my version of acceptance was, “Okay, this is not going away. I'm going to have to do something if I want to save my own neck.” 

So I got creative. I'd gotten my teaching license because well before this financial crisis, I thought, “I'm going to retire. I'm going to sell this hotel. I'm gonna give back to my community as a teacher.” So I had my teaching license. I went and got a grant and started writing science curricula. I got some money for that because you know where my money was going was to shore up my business and I still needed cash flow to live on. And then I looked around my house and I thought, “You know, I've accumulated a lot of stuff. I have some beautiful artwork. I have some designer shoes.” I had a great guitar. It was like a vintage guitar. And I thought I hadn't played that guitar in like 20 years. So I started selling things on eBay. I got really good at that. 

I had a book collection from my school days. I was an art history major (of all things) at Yale and I had fabulous books. I'd saved them all those years. Some of them were out of print. I started making money selling books on Amazon. I got really creative and I got to the point where I basically was doing four or five jobs. But I knew that at this point if I wanted to save my neck. I was going to have to work that hard. I was going to have to accept what happened to me and keep going. 

Then one night, lying on the couch I don't know at what hour I’m watching Home and Garden Television and House Hunters International is on and there's this Canadian teacher and I'm thinking, Heck, I'm a teacher.” There’s this Canadian teacher and she's in Dubai and she's shopping for an apartment and I'm like, “What kind of Canadian teacher can afford an apartment in Dubai?” I watched the show and it turns out she was an expat teacher at an international school. I'm like, “Wow, what an idea!” Immediately at the conclusion of that show, I was researching how to become an expat teacher because I thought, you know, once I get through this crisis, I need to move forward and I don't think it will be owning another hotel. I think this will have taken that dream away. But, I can create a new dream.

Now let's get to the stage: Realization of some good. This was a really exciting part. I had no idea how awesome being an International Expat School Teacher is. It is like the best thing ever. I get to travel the world. I get to live in this amazing country. I had never set foot in India before I accepted a job here. I got on a plane, I got off at Indira Gandhi International Airport and I said, “I'm home.” I didn't know what home was, but I made that decision and it was the best decision ever. And I had no idea through all these problems that I would end up living the life that I probably had always wanted. And it only came as a result of really major trials. 

I do want to mention the thing about the Taekwondo deal. I am 61 years old. I just earned my 4th degree black belt and I don't know how many of you know a 61-year-old ninja. So somewhere in that life story, I had a kid and I felt like I needed to get back in shape. So I enrolled her in Taekwondo and I went and worked out. And then over time, the place where I was working out moved and I wasn't able to drop her off at Taekwondo and still get enough of a workout in. So I went to my daughter who was seven at the time, and I said, “Honey, Natalie, could I please join you on the mat? You know you want me to be small enough to get behind the steering wheel so I can drive you to soccer practice. You're gonna have to let me work out.” And she did! 

My daughter also tested with me this summer and she, too, earned her 4th degree black belt. One of the amazing things I get to do here in India is I have about 170 Taekwondo students, ages two and a half to 48, including one last year that won a World Championship. And so this is part of that amazing dream that I had no idea was going to unfold and come out of that financial crisis I experienced. 

This is the tale of the Chinese farmer. This is like my mantra now. So there was a Chinese farmer and he had a horse. And one day the horse ran off, and his neighbors come over and they go, “Oh my God, this is the worst thing ever. Your horse ran off.”

Then the Farmer says, “You know good or bad, who's to say?”

Several days later, the horse comes back, and trailing the horse is another horse. The neighbors come over and say, “Oh, this is the best! You are so blessed!

And the farmer says, “Good or bad, who's to say?”

Several days later, the farmer's son gets this bright idea that he's going to actually break this horse and make it ridable and usable. So the son gets on the horse, and sure enough, gets bucked off and his leg gets broken. Neighbors come over. They're like, “Oh, this is the worst! Oh my God, your son. His leg is broken! 

And the farmer says, “Good or bad, who's to say?”

About two days later the Chinese army came through. They are conscripting young men because there's a war going on, and they look at the farmer's son, and they're like, “Well, we can't take him. His leg is broken.”

And the neighbors come over, and you know the punchline. Now they say, “Oh, this is so good, so good.”

And the farmer says, “Good or bad, who's to say?”

We don't know at the moment where things that we perceive as tragedies or successes are going to take us. All we can do is move forward. And this is a photo of an aurora borealis in Iceland. And my metaphor for all of this is the phoenix rising from the ashes, and that actually looks kind of like a phoenix. So I selected that image, and the two lines of poetry that I'm going to read are by Maya Angelou, she wrote a poem called 'And Still, I Rise', and these two lines speak to my heart and I hope they speak to yours:

“Leaving behind nights of terror and fear, I rise. Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear, I rise.”

  • Maya Angelou

So I invite you, no matter what life gives you, to continue to move forward. Thank you. 

Ted talk video—

About the Author:

Susan Vernon, Elementary School Teacher