Thursday, October 15, 2015

Persistence Pays Off

I want to tell you about one of the coolest days of my teaching career, a day that is really at the foundation of all of my ambition.

I began my teaching career as a high school English instructor at Metamora High, a small but wonderful central Illinois community. I started teaching fresh out of college, and even though the kids I had those first few years still say nice things to me, I often wonder how we all survived. What 22 year old should really be mentoring an 18 year old, right? But we learned from one another.



In my 2nd year of teaching, I wanted my American Lit students to read something non-fiction and contemporary for a change of pace (puke on The Scarlet Letter, sorry), so I chose a book that inspired me in my college years (you know, like a whole year before): Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom. I’m sure you know Mitch. He’s written a bunch of best sellers: The Five People You Meet in Heaven, For One More Day, Have a Little Faith, and more. He has his own radio show, does reports for ESPN, plays music (even with Stephen King before). In short, he has the kind of writing career that I only dream of at this point.

In 2003, I did something inspired by the great Dr. Kathy Whitson, one of my English professors from Eureka College. I recruited college students and residents of a local nursing home to join my high school students in reading and discussing Tuesdays With Morrie. In the book, Mitch learns that his favorite professor is dying because of ALS (Lou Gherig’s disease, the same terrible thing that took my father). Mitch goes to see Morrie for perhaps a final time, but it turns into regular visits on Tuesdays. They discuss everything: love, family, dying, money, and more. Mitch turned their heartfelt and insightful discussions into a book.

I wanted lots of different life perspectives, hence the invitation of college students and nursing home residents. It turned out great. We had fantastic discussions, and when we finished the book, I asked, “How should we celebrate?”

A student replied, “Invite the author to join us.”

Na├»ve and inexperienced, I said, “Okay. I will!”

After some research, I got in touch with Mitch’s agent or publisher or something. I told them of my proposal and the person told me, “Mitch would love to speak at your event. His speaking fee for a one day event is $30,000.”

I fell out of my chair. That was my teaching salary for that entire year.

With my head down, I told my students that Mitch would not be visiting our classes. One delightful young man spoke up and said, “Hey, don’t you remember what Morrie told Mitch about money and greed?”

Of course. But always the teacher, I replied, “Tell us what that was about again.”

“Morrie told Mitch we focus too much on the material, the next fancy car or new TV and not on people. Our focus should be on people. This isn’t right what Mitch is doing.”

I smiled and thought, you’ve earned an A, and then said, “What do you want to do about it?”

“Let’s write him a letter,” he said.

And so we did. We wrote over one hundred letters, one from each of my students. Out of respect for Mitch and perhaps embarrassment of my own young, naivety, I won’t tell you what some of them said. But I sure smiled when I sealed them in an envelope and sent them to the radio station where Mitch held his talk show.

A week later or so, I got a phone call. “Is this Mr. Chianakas?”

I swallowed hard. “Um, yes.”

“Mr. Chianakas, this is Mitch Albom calling. I got your letters.” I fell out of my chair. I don’t think I have ever heard such anger in a person’s voice. He was furious.

A wonderfully awkward thirty minutes later, we understood one another. First of all, it makes sense that celebrities aren’t going to be able to take every request from every person in the world. In most cases, such events happen due to a big sponsor in the community, someone willing to pay the $30,000 (which Mitch told me would only have been $20,000 actually since we were a non-profit). This was also back in 2003. I often wonder what the fees are now.

Anyway, we came to a mutual understanding. Mitch used the profits from Tuesdays to help pay Morrie’s medical bills. Far from a greedy guy, if you follow him still like I do, he does A TON of charity work. He’s successful, plain and simple, and we should celebrate that success, not criticize it.

At the end of the call, Mitch said, “I don’t like the idea of your students walking away from this book with a negative experience. Can I write a letter back? Maybe even send a video so I can explain?”

This was my moment. “Well, sir, I . . . I think you ought to come and explain that in person. That’s really the best way to do it.”

Do you know what he told me?

There was a moment of silence. And then Mitch said, “Okay.”

I fell out of my chair. I had been doing a lot of that in 2003. We worked out the specifics. He didn't charge any fee. He flew in to the Peoria airport on a private jet. I picked him up in the morning. We got breakfast. He hung out with all of my classes. I overheard a phone call where he was talking with his editor about the latest revisions to The Five People You Meet in Heaven (of which he gave me an advanced copy). He even did an all-school assembly where he told every student at Metamora High Morrie’s story.

Below: Watch a clip from Mitch's assembly, where I got to introduce him.






It was perhaps the best teaching day of my life.

At the end, I walked up to Mitch, humbled. I handed him my copy of Tuesdays With Morrie. I wanted an autograph, too. This is what we wrote in it: “To Joe—persistence pays off! Thanks for being a big man, and a great teacher. You honor Morrie’s legacy.”

Below: Watch Mitch get the biggest laugh of the day out of my students by making fun of me. But it's okay. He said something fantastic right after. Thanks, Mitch.



I have the book still. I tell this story occasionally. I think of Mitch’s statement that “persistence pays off” every single day.


It’s that energy that I used throughout my career, at the high school and now as a professor at Illinois Central College. It’s that determination and passion I thought of every day while trying to get my first book published. The rejection letters hurt, but every time someone told me no, I would take a deep breath, get out my notebook, and strategize how to move forward.

Never give up on your dreams. Maybe they will take years. Maybe they will take a lifetime. Maybe you’ll find yourself on your deathbed looking back thinking, “I wish I had done that.” As long as you’ve tried and tried and not given up, there will be no regrets.

Persistence pays off.

Get a copy of Joe's first novel, Rabbit in Red, here. You can learn more about Joe and the book by visiting his website at www.joechianakas.com or following on Facebook at www.facebook.com/chianakas


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