The People Who Shape Us
I’ve recently been giving more thought to why I am here. Not in the existential sense of “purpose” or “origin.” But the literal events and people that acted as guideposts for the life that I’ve traveled.
I think back to when my mom would take me to the grocery store. The medley of smells and taste profiles from the free samples dotting aisles of Whole Foods. How food inspired a sense of wonder that brought me to start a food startup.
Or the walks with my grandfather along the park near the lakefront. The pure love for the outdoors that he had and passed along to me. The passion for sustainability still lives on at my moral core.
When I think back on these moments, I notice that none of the things I have today are my own. Each and every quality and value I possess today has roots from different spots in my childhood.
And an overwhelming amount of these qualities stem from my 5th grade teacher.
Matt Gallo was a bespectacled, smiling man built like a tree trunk. In the classroom, he’d somehow bring the same energy that propelled his throws in gym class dodgeball. As he fired questions about Middle Eastern history and English prose around the room, the class would become a whirlwind of curiosity.
My friend Joel Callaway told me that some people are lucky enough to have an “irrational believer” in their lives. This irrational believer is such a potent force because they see a snapshot of your potential as clear as if it were a Polaroid in the palm of their hand, rather than some distant mirage. With their words of encouragement and steady belief, something interesting happens. The external push becomes an intrinsic drive to achieve. Not only because you want more for yourself, but because you want to become great for them.
My irrational believer was Matt Gallo.
I was a hyperactive, unfocused kid. The problem child of the classroom. By some miracle, he saw the seeds of something better. The truth is, until Matt came along, I don’t even think those seeds existed. He planted them and willed them to life.
Matt was a giver. He gave his heart and soul to anyone and everyone. He was smart, kind, funny, and as gritty facing the challenges of a 5th grade classroom as he was when charging down the football field.
My goal each day was to become a little more like him.
I studied harder, I threw myself into squash. I did my best to be kinder, more giving to the people around me. I failed a lot. Every time I derailed, I quickly got back on track because Matt had already paved every rail out for me solely by being himself.
My senior year of high school, the night before its due date (in classic fashion), I found out about an award for which students could nominate impactful teachers from their past.
I stayed up the whole night making sure I wrote the perfect note for Matt. Along with four other teachers, they chose Matt and flew them all out to our boarding school for two days.
The first day, Matt shadowed me through my classes. Linear algebra, Latin and Ancient Greek literature, robotics. He’d watch attentively as I started class discussions around Ovid’s poems, programmed a car to pick up a ping pong ball, and dealt with matrices and linear transformations.
He’s usually smiling, but I remember that for those two days, he couldn’t stop. I’d glance over at him sometimes and he’d be beaming this goofy grin at me.
I let myself be proud of who I had become that day. He had been the guiding spotlight on my way here.
The second day, our school asked us to say a few words about our teachers on the stage of the assembly hall.
But I was a terrible public speaker. I was too nervous to say anything more than: “Ummm… This is my 5th grade teacher Matt Gallo and I’m incredibly thankful for everything he gave me.”
There was so much more I wanted to say. I’m a little bit better with words now, Matt. So I want to take the chance to rewrite that today.
At Exeter, we put a high emphasis on personal achievement. In our pursuit for individual accomplishment, though, sometimes we can forget why we are here at all. Everything we have, the people we are — we didn’t get here by our own power. We are here because of the people who gave us the belief, goodness, and knowledge to dream of doing more.
Matt Gallo, my 5th grade teacher, gave me all of those things and much, much more.
Matt, you’re the person I grew up wanting to be. Along the way, I’ve made mistakes. I’ve wanted to give up. I’ve struggled with depression and wanted to take my own life. But I wouldn’t ever dream of taking away all the things you gave me.
Today, I pride myself on being a giver. The grit to push my legs past the point of exhaustion to claw the squash balls out of the four corners. On the ability to recognize the problems in our current world systems and design solutions.