Inside the Dash: Age of Aquarium

by Helen Zhu, TALON Academics Editor

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This podcast series hopes to slow things down for a few minutes of conversation with someone in this community, and to tell the stories of the lives of our community — inside the dash.

How many hours, minutes, or seconds do you spend on looking around you and appreciating the flowers blooming in your yard or the delicious food you’re eating or just your friends?

Over the course of the past month, I’ve witnessed the cherry tree in my Cupertino front yard blossom, bloom and wither. I pass by this tree every morning when I get in the car and every afternoon when I get home from school, always there to put a smile on my face when I begin and finish my day. Little green buds started to appear on the bare brown branches, and soon the entire tree was filled with the pink petals of the cherry blossoms.

A breeze blew gently against the blooms, and petals drifted to the ground. Not long after, the wind picked up and a gust blew all the delicate flowers off the tree, like it was raining petals. Within the span of seconds, the cherry blossoms that started and ended my day were no longer there.

When you visit someone’s cemetery, you see the dates they were born and the dates they passed. But when you wonder about their lives, they aren’t represented by those two dates; their life is the times between the dates.

Between the two dates on the tombstone, there’s a small dash to separate the beginning and endpoints of a life — but that small dash actually represents all of the moments of a person’s life: the journey, the dream, the triumph.

This podcast series hopes to slow things down for a few minutes of conversation with someone in this community, and to tell the stories of the lives of our community — inside the dash.

This question of whether or not I pay attention to the little things around me is one that I posed to myself; reflecting on the last few weeks, I can confidently say I do, but not nearly enough.

Which brings me to Upper School Division Head Butch Keller’s fish.

Last March, the Journalism Program began an initiative to improve student wellness, which led to an ongoing column (by sophomore Saloni Shah) and ongoing feature stories about sleep, relaxation, diet, mindfulness and other strategies for promoting physical and mental wellbeing on our campus.

Another idea that the journalism team wanted to try involved conversations between the generations on campus talking about life experiences. Our high school’s students have only been on the planet for 14 to 18 years, whereas others on our own campus have been on this planet a half century or more. We wanted to start something along the lines of StoryCorps meets Tuesdays with Morrie, sharing recent stories as well as life lessons.

When the Journalism Program pitched this idea to Keller, he gladly agreed to be a part of this.

I’d only been in Keller’s office once before, for a Humans of Harker interview about Richard Wang. For that interview, I quickly sat down and started my questions, and I didn’t look around. If you had asked me about the color of his walls or the shape of his desk, I couldn’t have answered: I was in my own world, focusing on my agenda of questions about Richard. And for the record, no, I did not notice his 55 gallon fish tank which has been there for more than a decade.

This time, I was in the moment, looking around his uniquely-shaped yet tidy office with an eye for detail. Meticulously placed books, picture frames of family and former basketball teams and dozens of trophies fill the bookcases; college mugs are neatly lined up on top of the shelves; student artwork is displayed on spare walls and stands.

“I want people to know that student art is important to me; I want them to know that my family is important to me; I want them to know that basketball is important to me. So there’s more to me than just the guy throwing down a punishment or making a tough decision,” Keller said.

And there it was, a fish tank in plain sight, sitting right behind his desk.

Between meetings when he needs some quiet time to transition, he closes his office door and watches the fish swim around, listening to the water and soft classical music simultaneously. Everything placed and done in his office is carefully thought out and purposeful.

He first started keeping an aquarium 12 years ago when every member on the girls basketball team that he was coaching picked out a fish from the pet store.

But they are not just fish; they are a reminder.

“If I have meetings, the fish and the music are really calming. It just helps not to come into a combative environment, and that’s really important in meetings with a 14-year-old or a 54-year-old. The sound of the water, the sound of the music — I work really hard to make the things here deliberate,” Keller said.

But during the same weeks I was watching cherry blossoms appear and then fall away, he was picking out seven African Cichlids for his fish tank. African Cichlids can only be in the same tank as other African Cichlids due to their aggressive nature, and each one needs seven gallons of water on average to itself. Having formerly taught biology, he chose this specific fish because of their natural color and beauty.

Just as Keller has his fish as his reminder, we should take a moment each day to look around and appreciate the little things in life, the things we already have.

Keller reminds his own children and students: “Take a breath and look at what you’ve accomplished rather than what you haven’t done, because then you’re missing all the steps along the way.”

As Oprah Winfrey says, “Life is full of delightful treasures, if we take a moment to appreciate them.”

If Keller did not volunteer to keep the 5-feet tall centerpiece of Winter Ball 12 years ago (which is the aquarium he has now), if he did not come to work every Sunday to clean his fish tank, he would not have the calming sounds of water and sights of swimming fish to look forward to every day.

And had I not stopped to admire the intricate petals of my cherry blossom tree, I would have missed out on the beautiful April phenomenon for another year.

You might not have an aquarium or witness the blooming of cherry blossoms, but I bet there’s something that is your moment of appreciation on your way home today. I hope you make the most of it.