It did not start out as a memorable day. As usual, my parents forced me to an event, in this case a graduation at Lawrenceville School for my first cousin. The event was held outside, and I can still see the space to the left of the stage where I played. While I never paid attention to speeches, the prizes that were being awarded that day to the "best students" mesmerized me. I noticed that the speakers kept calling out the same name. As an eleven year old, I thought to myself, "I want to be that guy, the guy who gets recognized with a collection of silver bowls, framed certificates and white envelopes." Envelopes which I later learned contained cash.
That moment defined me. From that point on, I focused. I became determined, more determined than most anyone I encountered. Why? Because I wanted to be that guy at commencement whose name was called out again and again.
Perfect, one might say. Isn't that the point of prizes? To motivate, to inspire, to instruct, to get youth to fall in line? I use to think so.
Sure this strategy had its benefits. I learned to work hard for a goal. Doors were opened and I built up a reputation. But did I want to win an engraved silver bowl anyway? It didn't matter that I won one, what I remember is that I didn't win two. Why did I work so hard to go to Harvard? Just so I could mumble my response when someone asks me where I went to college? Go ahead and try it - ask someone who went to Harvard where they went to college, and you will understand what I am talking about. Why did I need to climb that mountain? Just so I could say, "Wow, that mountain no longer has a hold on me?" What if I never let it have a hold on me in the first place?
What if I had been free to be myself from the beginning rather than having to "earn" it through a system that defined my success with an acceptance letter and my self-worth with a trophy?
As a parent, I didn't want my kids to go through what I went through. I did not want them to define their successes by the awards they might win and the ones that they wouldn't. I didn't want some college admissions officer who'd never met them to define their senses of worth. Instead, I wanted them to discover the world with their own eyes and begin their journeys accordingly. So I have never once looked at a report card. Instead, I asked them if they worked hard. I made it clear that it was more important to me that they be polite than be on the honor role. I didn't talk about where I went to college, and they did not know until I took them to one of my reunions. They didn't enter the college admission process in middle school hell-bent on trying to earn a "spot" in the world's elite. And I didn't ask or expect them to win a prize for conforming to a system that they did not see as legitimate.
Recently I spoke to one of my sons about this. "Dad, you did a good job," he said. "If you teach your kids to think, once they do, they do not listen to anyone who gives orders. Love us, but don't tell us how to live in the world. Until you realize the power of what you cultivated, you will be frustrated. Once you do, you will understand you did a great job as a dad."
This week I will sit through my forth-high school graduation in four years. Two years ago I sat through commencement at the same place that I did as a kid. But this time, instead of the awards catching my attention, it was that day's speaker, Blake Eldridge, who grabbed my attention in a similar yet completely different way.
Invoking Mark Twain and Huck Finn he said, "The law, culture, religion, and even the education system all teach Huck the sanctity of slavery. Turn Jim in, and Huck knows he will be celebrated as an American and a Christian. Help Jim, and he thinks he'll be damned to hell."
Huck had always been a troublemaker, always disobedient. Huck was always getting chastised, corrected, rebuked, and punished. So when it came time to help Jim, Huck was ready for the anxiety, fear, and resentment that awaited him... It was because Huck was "no good" that he could do what no one else was good enough to do.
If you think you're the kind of person who will stand up for what you believe, you'd better have had lots of practice with getting into trouble.
So those of you out there who didn't win a prize today may have a head start. You might have already shown yourself capable of withholding some piece of yourself from the community's expressed values while privately rethinking their merit. Fingers may have been pointed at you. You may not have been given the benefit of the doubt.
"Will you take that capacity for disobedience and put it to work for someone else?" Instead of assimilating with and working inside a system in order to maximize your own profit, will you suffer the temporary (maybe permanent) anxiety of disapproval that comes with any challenge to injustice and hypocrisy?
Huck Finn reminds us that positive change is the product of disobedience and blasphemy. How do you effect positive change? To really do us honor, you need to improve upon what worked for us.
Disobedience can be the highest compliment.
My son Zac graduates today. He has grown up just as I have hoped, polite, energetic, and, thanks to his mother's genes, tall and handsome, and with a healthy dose of irreverence.
Zac would rather do parkour than pole-vault.
Zac enrolled in vo-tech his junior year rather than college prep.
Zac will take an extra shift at work so his friend can go to an event, even though Zac was planning on going.
A defining story emerged when I got on Zac's case for not bringing his book to class, defying the one instruction that the teacher required. What I later discovered was that Zac had indeed had his book in class, but he had given it to a hysterical hard-driving classmate who had forgotten hers.
So congratulations to those who win awards at graduation. You worked hard for them. I know. It is an incredible accomplishment. May your success free you up rather than send you down the path that others may have planned for you. And this year it's time to add another award... lets call it the Huck Finn "I recken ill light out for the territory" Award. An award for all those who have spent their high school years preparing for roles that will change the world. To recognize a student click here.
The youth pastor at our church said, "I wish I had the courage in high school to be like Zac." And so do I. My kids have made their own ways, and for that I am proud, more proud than I was for the sliver cup I won, the titles that I held, and the offers that came my way.