Educator and blogger Ray Salazar, who teaches junior and senior AP English in Chicago Public Schools on the Southwest side, said a book that has been significant to his teaching was The Alchemist, by Brazilian writer Paolo Coelho. The short novel, which has been hailed as a favorite from Former President Bill Clinton to movie star Will Smith, is the fable of Andalusian shepherd boy Santiago, who embarks on a far-flung journey in search of Egyptian treasure after a powerful dream. Along the way, Santiago encounters spiritual messengers in the form of different characters, and meets an alchemist, who becomes his teacher.
Salazar recently told MindShift why The Alchemist had such a big impact on him, and ideas from the book influence how he talks to students, and how he sees himself as a teacher. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Salazar: The Alchemist is a book of fiction. It’s about a shepherd boy who has this recurring dream about treasure at the foot of the Egyptian pyramids. And on that journey, things happen: he gets robbed, he’s going to get a job at a crystal shop, he moves along with some caravan, and then he falls in love at an oasis. He eventually meets an alchemist, and this alchemist starts talking to him about pursuing a personal legend, and he says that every person, every thing in the universe has the power to transform itself into something greater, and that’s our responsibility in life. So Santiago continues on his journey, and he realizes that his personal legend does not lie at the foot of the pyramids–the dream was just to encourage him so he could take that risk, and eventually find the true meaning in his life.
I found The Alchemist about 18 years ago in a bookstore, back when there were still bookstores, and to be honest with you, I picked up the book because it had a pretty cover. It was unlike anything I’d ever read. I liked the whole spirituality of it, but it wasn’t religious; I liked his whole idea of this kid with big dreams–that kind of reminded me of being a kid with big dreams. I just got hooked into the story. [At the time] I’d been a teacher for two years, and I worked really hard to get that degree, and I was starting to see more and more how teaching is incredibly difficult, and I started to wonder if I’d made the wrong decision, if I should have been a lawyer like I’d originally wanted when I was 15 years old. The book gave me the vocabulary to figure out how to listen for my dream–how we have to have a dream, and if we don’t have a dream, we have to listen, and listen to our instincts, and listen to the signs that the universe does send to us, so that we can figure out what that dream is, so that we have a purpose in life.
So after reading this book, I started to have a new perspective. And I think The Alchemist was a book that helped me re-adjust my perspective on life, and always always, as difficult as it is, to find the good things in every situation I’m in.
Here is one of my favorite passages: “What you still need to know is this: before a dream is realized, the Soul of the World tests everything that was learned along the way. It does this not because it is evil, but so that we can, in addition to realizing our dreams, master the lessons we’ve learned as we’ve moved toward that dream. That’s the point at which, as we say in the language of the desert, one ‘dies of thirst just when the palm trees have appeared on the horizon. Every search begins with beginner’s luck. And every search ends with the victor’s being severely tested.”
I think I’ve learned as a teacher, as a parent, as a writer, I think I’ve learned to listen to my instinct. And more importantly, to overcome self-doubt. I’ve learned how to think about using that self-doubt to become a better person. I definitely make mistakes, and I try more and more to consciously learn from those mistakes. I really do believe that there’s more goodness in the universe than there is bad, and I do believe that the goodness of the universe speaks to us. And every time I start to think about leaving teaching again– I left teaching for three years–I think about it and think, I’m done, I always get a type of sign, something happens that sends me the message that I am exactly where I need to be, and I don’t need to be anywhere else.* I truly chalk that up to the goodness of the universe, saying, stay where you are.
One of the qualities I have tried to develop over the years is to be less stubborn, and to be more patient, and I think that this book, and the philosophy of this book, has helped me understand why patience is such a valuable quality, and why an open mind is essential for our success. And we have to listen to ourselves and our instincts, but we need to make sure we have to find people who believe in us and who care about us, and what they have to tell us, too, and that’s what we have to do, find people who believe us. And sometimes not all situations turn out the way you want, but [in the book] Santiago definitely listens to what the people around him tell him, and he makes decisions based on that.
*An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated the amount of time Salazar was away from teaching. We regret this error.