How high school shapes our careers

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I was fascinated by Lisa Belkin’s article yesterday in The New York Times’ Style section. Titled “Planning a Life With Room for Debate,” she views the new Denzel Washington film The Great Debaters and recalls her own adventures in youthful argument. She writes,

I was also a young debater, and although I can’t say that it helped me change the world, it certainly helped change me. I joined the team because it sounded like a laugh. Where else could you get trophies for arguing?

What I couldn’t have known was that I would grow up to give speeches at least once a month, play host to a satellite radio program once a week and earn a good percentage of my living by talking. The day I earned a spot on the team from John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore, N.Y., was a pivotal day that changed everything that came afterward in my life — clear in hindsight, but invisible at the time.

Her point in the article was that our high-school selves often inform our careers. I was never on the debate team in high school. There was no debate team. I could have started one, I suppose, if I had ever heard of debate teams. But I was a little busy. Like Belkin, I was heavily invested in a high-school activity that would surely catapult me into college and propel my career thereafter. I was a cheerleader.

Okay, I was the cheerleading captain. Okay, I was the cheerleading captain of a trophy-winning squad in an otherwise athletically retarded school. Okay, it was the most significant thing I did in high school.

And okay, I realize how pathetic that is, thank you very much.

Oh, sure, I could read all sorts of career tea leaves into that role, if you want me to. It taught me management skills (though my fellow squadmates called me Hitler to my face). It taught me to smile in the face of crushing defeat (which was all the time, thanks to our crap basketball team). It taught me to land on my ass in public, then get up and shout, whoo!

But seriously. Unlike debating, cheerleading has absolutely nothing to do with journalism. What’s more, my maniacal obsession with my “sport” turned my 4.0 into a 3.2. It colored my teachers’ perception of my abilities and future; I skipped advanced algebra for practice and nearly landed in suspension, and our drunk of a counselor told me my college prospects were few. If I were my parents, I would absolutely have made me quit my junior year and focus on what really mattered: work. Unstopped and unchecked, I ran my team like a crazed dictator, my eyes ever on some worthless prize.

I think our high-school selves do shape our grown-up selves, but maybe not in the way you’d expect. I spent a recent weekend with a pastor’s wife, the kind of woman they call a First Lady in megachurch circles. She compared her world to “middle school all over again,” with everybody playing out their old roles. In fact I could picture her exactly this way in high school, a kindly queen among her subjects.

But I’d like to think that’s not always exactly so. I’d like to think someone I went to school with would meet me today and think, Huh, she’s not at all like I remembered. I’d like to think I do what I do despite what I used to do. Some of us have to overcome the person we were at 16 to become someone else at 26 and someone else again at 36.

Still, maybe we’re all doomed to repeat our pasts. The other day, my daughter told me she wanted to go watch her boy cousins play soccer so she could be the cheerleader. “Oh,” she told me, “I’ll need my pom-poms.” I threw mine out decades ago. But I’ve already bought her a set of red ones.

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