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One-Page Wonders: Start a Commonplace Book

One of the grand old traditions of literature is the Commonplace Book, a repository of quotations that inspire, challenge, and guide us on our journey through life.

I first encountered the term "Commonplace Book" when I was well into my 30s. One of the resources that Arthur Schlesinger used in his biography of Robert F. Kennedy was RFK's Commonplace Book of quotations. That Book was an important ingredient in Kennedy's struggle to make sense out of life, especially after the assassination of his brother John.

The term "Commonplace Book" was new to me, but I understood the enormous power of treasured words from those who passed through life before me. When I was a boy, I found my father's momentos from his time in the Army Air Corps during World War II. When he began his time in the military, he received a diary, "My Life in the Service," from the Army. He only made a few entries in the journal; however, the footer of each page contained a pre-printed quotation. As I read through the citations, a line from Robert E. Lee captured my attention and became a daily companion for me through the next 55+ years:

"Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less. "

I struggled mightily during my transition to high school from the security of my parish elementary school. I typed that line from Robert E. Lee on a small index card and sealed it with clear contact paper. I carried that card in my wallet for years and held it tightly in my hand during times of distress.

Late in my sophomore year in high school, I ran for Student Body Vice-president against the most popular student in my class - the star football player in an all-boys high school. At the end of my speech in front of 900 students, I used the quotation:

"As Robert E. Lee said, 'Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.' "

Unfortunately, the laughter from the students at the mention of Robert E. I Lee drowned out my closing words.

I lost the election, but I still treasure that moment in my young llife.

As I mentioned, the quotation has been my daily companion for more than 55 years. I rarely mention the line to others; nevertheless, it is a fundamental component of my inner life.

In May 2010, I made my last classroom visit as the Career Center coordinator in an Adult Education school. I did a brief presentation on jobs and careers to an English as a Second Language class. After my talk, I opened the conversation up for questions. Unbelievably, one of the students asked me, "What is your favorite quotation, your guiding motto?"

That day, I knew that my formal, traditional teaching role was ending. I simply could not continue that role because of my physical health limitations. A fundamental part of my life was dying, and I could barely maintain my compusure.

I was stunned at the question. I felt that someone or something beyond this frail existence was helping me stay connected to my core values; I sensed that that power beyond me was affirming those values even at this moment of unspeakable loss.

The words stumbled out of my mouth; I made sure that I understood the question correctly. Then, I turned and wrote the quotation on the green chalkboard - - Lord, I love the texture and smell of classroom chalk on a green board. I read the line and my formal teaching career passed into darkness.

Yes, the term "Commonplace Book" was new to me as I read Robert F. Kennedy's biography 30 years ago, I but I understood the power of words entered into that spiritual journal.

Next Steps: Now, it's your turn.

Think about authors, books, and lines that have had a particular impact on you.

Start a collection of those quotations. When I started my collection as a youth, I wrote down the lines on scraps of paper or typed them on index cards and saved them in an envelope. I still have those long-faded pages.

Alternatively, enter the lines in a file or a collection files on your smartphone, tablet, or larger system.

Today, I store my Commonplace Book in a MySQL database on my Drupal-based Center for Education and Change Web site that I can access from anywhere in the world.

What can I say? Once a geek, always a geek.

- Mike Genevro

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