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The most important equation wasn’t taught in math class

School started back up last week in Springfield. You can tell it by the increase in traffic around town, and see it in the moist eyes of some of my colleagues who sent their young students off to school … some for the first time. As a parent, sending my oldest off to kindergarten was one of the “Big Three” for me during their formative years. The other was the freedom and terror of a driver’s license for them, and their departure for college.

I never had the experience of going to kindergarten myself. I was the last of three boys in my family, and kindergarten was not mandatory then. My older brothers shared with me how stale the graham crackers were, and the orange drink was lukewarm, and I wanted no part of it. I think by the time I came along, my mom just didn’t want one more battle, so she acquiesced.

I felt like I was getting away with something as my neighbor friends jumped in Miss Marjorie’s Rambler Nash station wagon, and I was able to watch cartoons. It only made first grade more traumatic, however. I cried all day the first two days along with my pal Jewell Ann. On the third day, her dad showed up with a belt. We both shut up for good then.

School grew on me after that, with a few bumps in the road. I was fearful that at some point I would come across something that I would never be able to understand. Algebra was a threat, as I tried to equate “a” in the “a + b = c” with a “1,” etc. It finally soaked in. Physics was another, but thanks to the largesse and large handwriting of my smart friend sitting in the desk beside me, I made it through.

In all those classes, and economics, I learned lots of formulas. Some are transformational: E = mc2, A = πr2, etc. The most important equation, though, I didn’t learn until I was well into my career: E + R = O, which translates to “Event plus Response equals Outcome.” I think it may be the most powerful equation in the universe (sorry, Dr. Einstein).

In life, we have little effect nor influence on those events that happen to us … being cut off in traffic, a rude customer, a troubling student in class. We do have total control, however, on our response. What we do and say after the first event will have everything to do with the outcome.

That space between the E and O is ours, and that is liberating. I don’t really think the apology of “sorry, that’s just how I am” after an outburst is acceptable. Own your R.

For most of us, school has an outsized influence on our lives. Decades after ever having taken a college class, I still have that recurring nightmare of being asked to take a final for a class I didn’t realize I was enrolled in. Even though school is long in my memory, learning continues each and every day.

Brian Fogle is the President and CEO of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks.

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