I came home from work the other day and was greeted with another reminder of the fact that I am getting old; I was sent a “save the date” card for my high school reunion. Last year, I was sent an invitation for my 20th reunion and this year would mark my 21st year since graduation. If being married, having a mortgage, kids, two cars and a regular nine to five job hadn’t reminded me on a daily basis of my maturation in the life process; the reminder card for my high school reunion did the trick. I am officially old!
Later that night, I thought about what I was doing as I was getting ready to go back to school to start my senior year. I would like to say that I remembered it fondly, but I didn’t. I remembered being excited to finish the final year of high school so I could move on with my life. But the more I thought about that time, the more I recalled how I had been completely and utterly “snubbed” by the school administration at the conclusion of my junior year.
My parents had decided to enroll me in a prep school in the northwestern hills of Connecticut. My father was an alumnus and my brother was a senior when I was a freshman. I never had a choice in the decision. It was a foregone conclusion when my brother and I were younger that we would be spending our high school years at prep school.
The institution had a student run government. The sixth form, which was a formal way of classifying the senior class, ran the school under the guidance of the administration and the founding principles of the educational facility. There was a job system for the entire school that was run by the sixth form, an honor system that was strictly adhered to in our high school and a disciplinary system that was student run in addition to the faculty led educational components. It was this student government system by which I referred to as “being snubbed” by at the end of my junior year.
My parents had instilled a sense of right and wrong in my brothers and I from an early age. We understood that gray areas did exist and that there were two sides to every story but in a classic business sense, there was a right way and a wrong way to conduct oneself. We were taught to earn things in life. If we wanted something, we worked for it. But most of all, we were taught that if we didn’t succeed, learn from our mistakes and take those lessons with us in our next endeavor.
When I was a freshman, I decided that I wanted to be the Senior Prefect in my final year of high school. My father had his stories of his glory days in high school, what he learned while he was there as well as how he had become an integral part of the school’s mission over the thirty years that preceded my arrival. My brother was a star lacrosse player, one of the “cool” kids and one of their most driven academic performers. The landscape at my high school was already dotted with the legacy and contributions of my family members. My goal, and hopefully my legacy, was to be a good student, a good athlete, but also a hard worker who was worthy of earning the position of Senior Prefect as a sixth former.
Life at private school was hard for me. I had understood the social spectrums at public school. I had fit in with my peers at public school and I was able to achieve a lot in a public educational system, but private school was going to take an added effort on my part to find my niche. I just didn’t fit in with my classmates and no matter how hard I tried to change my position in the pecking order, it seemed like people were playing with a new set of rules that I had a hard time acclimating into my daily life. As I said before, my parents had instilled a sense of right and wrong in us early on in life. I won’t say it wasn’t the same for the people I went to high school with over twenty years ago, but they had a different set of rules and priorities that they all lived by. Different backgrounds will have that affect on all of us.
My freshman year was a wash and I found out quickly that I was the low man on the totem pole. I would like to have blamed it all on having an older sibling in the sixth form and that made me an easier target. Unfortunately, I was to blame for not realizing the differences I had had with others and for not having attempted to bridge the gaps as quickly as possible. This was new territory for me but since I was now aware of the landscape that laid before me at the end of my freshman year, I knew what I had to personally work on to succeed in the future. So in my sophomore year, I worked hard. I made better friendships with people and I had kept my nose out of trouble with my peers. In many ways, I had moved up the social totem pole and in other ways, I stayed exactly where I had been when I had ended my freshman year.
I knew that I would have to do something extraordinary if I were to craft a name for myself as leadership material in the eyes of the faculty and administration. So I designed and created a system where the juniors and not the seniors would be responsible for overseeing and proctoring the study hall system. In our school, seniors or faculty members presided over study hall. Freshman and sophomore students were required to attend an afternoon and an evening monitored study session.
I felt that this system would be a stepping stone for the junior class to prove their credibility as they moved toward leadership positions in the sixth form. I presented my plan to the Headmaster, discussed the idea with the Dean of Students and worked out a system with my classmates. It was my idea so I was the person who was responsible for making sure that the system was working properly. I was also responsible for overseeing my fellow classmates who were accountable for assuming the responsibilities of monitoring the daily study periods.
It was a highly visible and highly rewarding position for me. I had done a good job. There had been many opportunities for me to personally fail and for others to make sure I had failed at the task at hand, but neither scenario had ever presented itself. My classmates, who hadn’t viewed me as the most popular individual in our class, had responded admirably. We all had achieved a great success in proving our abilities to assume responsibility for the student government and the student led jobs systems in our senior year. I knew I wouldn’t be elected by the student body to the position of Senior Prefect but I felt that the school administration would reward me with the position of School Prefect. I had thought that my tenacity and work ethic would stand out from the rest of my class as a perfect reason for the faculty to elect me to the post.
On the final night of school, we all attended Chapel for the final service of the year. It was during this installation service that we learned about the head of our student government for the following year. As expected, I was not elected as the Senior Prefect. I was also not selected as the School Prefect. And then in one final and crushing blow, I was not selected as one of the Dorm Prefects either. I had been snubbed. I was told later that night that I was selected by the faculty to run the dining hall. It was a highly visible position within the school community but not the position I had worked so hard for over the past three years. I felt “snubbed” by the school, I had failed myself and in many respects, I had failed my father.
As I prepared for my sixth form year, I decided to put what had happened behind me and to move on to my new endeavor in the dining hall. I was going to run the best dining hall system the school had ever seen. This was easier said than done. The people who were the employees of the student run dining hall were sophomores. In order to create a top notch system, we had to have topnotch people. Since I wasn’t allowed to choose who would be working in the dining hall, it was incumbent upon me to make the system work.
I learned a lot about myself and about my current managerial style as the head of the dining hall. I had learned to be fair but firm. I had learned when “right” wasn’t necessarily the right way to accomplish tasks and when “wrong” wasn’t necessarily wrong or the wrong way. But most of all, I had developed a style of communication with people that has been integral to everything I have done since I graduated. As most of the sophomores who worked in the dining hall would say to me, “you aren’t as big a loser as your classmates say you are” and I would take that for what it was; a compliment.
And yet, I still felt like I had failed. I had worked hard for three years and felt I deserved to be a Prefect, but it just wasn’t meant to be. I did learn a few lessons that would stay with me forever, though. I learned that hard work didn’t guarantee anything. I realized that human nature dictated that life was more about who you know and not about what you know or what you have accomplished. I also learned that a job was not about the hourly wage; it was about what you accomplished during the hour that was important. I learned right from wrong early in life but I learned about having a solid work ethic in that dining hall. I also learned to deal with adversity and how to deal with the heartbreak of not having succeeded.
The American prep school and I were not suited for each other but by the end of my tenure, I learned some intangibles that I have taken with me in my life. I have been successful in my career. I worked my way up the ladder quickly and at the age of twenty-nine, I was offered the position of Executive Director at a non-profit organization. I have been an integral member of a statewide coalition as their public policy chair, I have been appointed to a state board by the Governor of the Commonwealth, and I was asked by my community to run for State Representative. And of course, my greatest success in life has been my beautiful family; my wife and children. Yet, with all of the success I have had in my career and in my personal life, there were times I still felt like I had let my father down twenty-one years ago when I wasn’t selected as a Prefect.
So I threw away my “save the date” card for my 21st high school reunion. I didn’t have any interest in returning to my high school over the past twenty-one years and I don’t know if I will ever be interested in going back. I have accepted the past for what it was; a time to learn and a time to build character. And that sometimes, the past is better left in the past.