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Lessons Learned From the School of Life

When your formal education ends, the learning really begins

Every autumn I am flooded with childhood memories. The reds and golds of the season instantly transport me back to playing in piles of leaves and feeling the breeze in the air. But the most potent fall memory for me can be summed up in three words: back to school.

Hitting the books Marlo Thomas at 7, center, reads with father Danny and sister Terre. (Courtesy Marlo Thomas)

Marlo Thomas at 7, center, reads with father Danny and sister Terre. — Courtesy Marlo Thomas

I loved school, and I was a pretty good student. In English class I became an avid reader (in class: Young Abe Lincoln; at home: Nancy Drew!).

I was also fascinated by science.

I didn't know back then that my education would continue for the rest of my life. All of us learn new lessons every day — and not just small ones, like how to operate the remote. I'm talking about those big life lessons that encourage us to look at the world in a different way.

When I became an actress, I quickly discovered that the best way to take the reins of my career was to venture behind the camera and become a producer, even as I continued to act. It wasn't always easy — sharp elbows were everywhere — but the lesson was simple: What good is having a voice unless you use it?

I started using that voice in other ways. My first taste of activism was voter registration, which brought me into a circle of brilliant and fearless women who invited me to join them on the front lines of the feminist movement and behind the scenes of political campaigns, including Bobby Kennedy's and George McGovern's.

Through all of this, I learned that we can change our world. I learned about the power of coalitions. And I learned about the invincibility of dreams. I'll never forget the crushing grief the nation felt when Bobby was assassinated in 1968, and how after that first wave of horror, we decided to channel our sadness into carrying on his legacy, particularly the fight for racial equality.

And then, of course, it was back to school again for me when, at midlife, I joined the work of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, which my father had founded. It was there I learned that, for all the blessings we count every day, the most blessed gift is life itself.

We run through life so fast that sometimes it takes a loss to learn how precious it really is. For me the lesson hit home when I lost my darling father. But the preciousness of life becomes especially profound when you've held a dying child in your arms, as I have at St. Jude. I've looked into the faces of parents, their eyes weary from sleepless hours of pacing waiting rooms. I've witnessed the unbendable spirit of the children, whose strength and optimism burn within them. Only then do you understand the real and fragile beauty of life. That lesson is probably the most powerful one I'll ever learn.

And so I'm excited for the kids across the country who will once again buy new book bags and plan that special outfit for the first day of school. But I'm equally excited for us grownups, as we wake each morning and ask ourselves: What can I learn today?

What new lessons — the tough ones and the fun ones — will make me a better student tomorrow?

Actress, author and activist Marlo Thomas blogs at marlothomas.com.

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