Accidents & Inspiration

by irms

…will lead you to your destination. — Mary Chapin Carpenter, The Long Way Home

I went to school on an academic scholarship, and I wish I could say that I got to do that on account of my incredible foresight,  determination, and hard work.  But that’s not at all what happened.  Here’s how it went down:

When I was fairly young (7), I realized it felt really good to do well on my homework.  When you’re seven, you don’t really think of things in terms of hard and not-hard.  You think of things in terms of in-trouble versus not-in-trouble.  I didn’t think about being smarter than everyone else, I just saw an easy way to not agitate the adults at home or at school, and that seemed just fine to me.

Front-yard Football

Compliments about being smart were nice, but really, I was just happy to be left alone.  Being nerdy with schoolwork almost directly meant I couldn’t really be chummy with other people my age, so I figured I better get good at sports too.  I wasn’t funny enough, or charming enough, or pretty enough to be recognized for those qualities, so sports it would be.  Besides that, my dad seemed to appreciate all the “hard work” I was putting in and that made me feel pretty good too.

Doing well in work and play became a habit.  Only during lectures by college spokespeople in high school did I ever think (or say) that I was working toward a long-term goal.  My goal was to do good that day and not get in trouble the next.  Those were my aspirations.

NOTE:  I never once thought out my future so much that I wanted to make myself a better tomorrow.

Once “getting A’s” became habitual, and being athletic was pretty well cemented, then the rest was just for show.  Nothing required honest-to-god hard work, it just looked, from the outside, as though it did.  What really mattered, was time.  Everything required time.  So I did as many things as would fit in a day since wearing out oneself isn’t a factor when you’re 16 years old.

At one point, I was taking 8 classes in a school that was structured for a maximum of 7, playing two sports concurrently and performing with two bands.  I also worked and volunteered outside of school.  Again, I never thought about things in terms of hard work — only time.  Operating at full-tilt was my mode by default at this point, not effort.  Habit, really. Certainly not out of drive.

I distinctly remember a teacher telling me I was his single source of inspiration in a very difficult (his first) year of teaching.  I remember feeling flattered, but wondering what I was doing that was so damn hard.  I knew I was being given too much credit.  Getting in the Who’s Who of American High School Students book didn’t feel like the achievement it was supposed to be.

So I got good grades because they were easier than bad grades on the stay-out-of-my-hair-I’ll-stay-out-of-yours scale, and I was good at sports because they were fun and I liked the praise.

During our junior year, they ushered the entire class into the cafeteria to take the PSATs (Preliminary SATs).  I scored very well on the test because it didn’t make sense to blow off a test that got me out  of class all day.  I did not seek this test out.  My high school just told us to take it.  I didn’t have a choice.  (Apparently, most high schools advertise the dates and students sign up to sit the test.)

NOTE:  There was no initiative, on my part, to sit for this test.  I had no earthly idea how important it was.

Caruthers Union High School

Months later, my school received a letter that said I should demonstrate my extra-curricular awesomeness, send in my transcripts and submit letters of recommendation to be considered for the National Merit Finalist Award.  The councilor of the school, at the time, Mr. Cantu, did all this without my knowledge.  Weeks after that, I was on the golden list.  Thank you, Mr. Cantu.

University of Toledo

Letters from colleges came by the dozens.  My dad threatened to charge me rent on the post office box.  Scholarship offers for sports, academia, and merit rolled in.  Some large, some small.  I chose the largest and moved to Ohio.

I lived there for 6 years and stumbled away with an engineering degree in 2004. (College stories are for another post, stay with me here.)

NOTE: I did not endeavor to obtain a giant scholarship.  I was more concerned with maintaining my good record than improving it.

Engineering, specifically Computer Science & Engineering, was the third most difficult degree to complete at my school at that time. Law was first, followed by Pharmacy, and the school I went to was notorious for three of the most rigorous programs in those areas.  So why did I choose it?  Well first, when I chose it, I didn’t know those facts.  Second, my brother laughed at me when I told him because he knew I didn’t know the first thing about computers and that made me just mad enough to do it out of spite.  And third, I didn’t have anything else in mind, so this seemed good enough.

NOTE:  I did not choose an ambitious degree for the sake of being ambitious, I chose it for every other convenient reason.  Had it turned out to be the simplest program, my degree would still likely be in Computer Science and Engineering.

So what am I saying here?  That I’m not smart? Or hard-working? Or ambitious?  No.  I think I’m all those things.  Or, at least, now I am.  But the lesson here is how I came to be those things.

Now I recognize my qualities and I can better myself because of them.  But I wasn’t born reaching for the stars.  It wasn’t until I realized I was on my way there anyway that I decided they were a destination.

If you’re still reading this, you should know that this is somewhat embarrassing to write.  I’ve pretty much just admitted to God and everyone that my motives were never pure, my drive was misguided, and my intentions were shortsighted.  I am not, nor was I ever, the level-headed kid with big goals and small pockets.  I was not out to best by financial situation by getting a giant scholarship and then blowing the lid off expectations by majoring in something hard.  Given the circumstances, I was just doing what seemed easiest at that time, and that’s embarrassing to say out loud.

But I think the lesson is too great to be eclipsed by my shame.  It’s important to realize that the driving factors here were external.  All along the way.  I wanted people to think good things about me, I didn’t necessarily want to be that good.

Now that I’m older, in control, and very very wise, I’m always judging the people around me. Students and friends alike, wondering why they have no ambition.  Why don’t they want to work harder and learn new things?

Which is why I had to write this.

My judgement is wrong.  It’s a mistake.  Afterall, it’s none of my doing that I have those traits now. Children and students, especially, should benefit from this revelation.

I think we should take a good long look at our best qualities and figure out how they got there.  That way, when we are teaching the next generation, whether by example or in front of a classroom, we can faithfully make them better people…by fastening on to their best qualities and giving them no other choice.