10th grade. On the bus to school, I remembered that Mrs. Byington had challenged us to memorize Marc Antony’s famous eulogy for his freshly deceased homeboy, Julius Caesar. 20 or 30 bonus points – serious money – were offered to stand in front of the class and give Caesar a proper send off. I wanted those points, I wanted to impress Mrs. Byington, and I wanted to have remembered before that day started that the speech was due that morning.
Mrs. Byington was a petite blond woman who taught English. Thinking back now about her stature in comparison to high school kids, she was seriously small. She had no problems commanding our attention and asserting authority in the classroom, however. She kept her word, of course, and the handful of us that braved reciting the speech got to bask in our sweet, sweet bonus points.
I used the bus ride, breakfast, and 1st period to memorize the speech before English class – somewhere around 2 hours (one of my bragging points about the feat is how long it took to memorize it). Truth be told, the speech was written with a certain rhythm that made it less difficult to memorize. I was impressed if no one else was. I had pushed myself beyond what I knew I was capable of.
How dare you dare me to excel??
Sometime before the speech, on the back of a graded writing assignment (I don’t recall the topic), Mrs. Byington wrote a note suggesting I join the Journalism Club. The word journalism wasn’t in my vocabulary yet, but I understood the meaning by the context (ironically, there’s a word for deriving the meaning of a word by contextual clues that’s not in my vocabulary at the moment). But what the heck does the journalism club do? She explained they were in charge of yearbooks and the school paper.
I remember thinking how boring it sounded. I didn’t buy yearbooks. I probably didn’t know anyone in the club, and cool kids couldn’t possibly be writers. I didn’t read the school paper. I didn’t read anything outside of what was required. I was curious, sure – but not enough to take a step forward and see what the club was about. I declined quite swiftly. Young fool.
How could it feel to see a glow, a flame in someone, reach out for it, then watch it smothered from dirt kicked by that person’s own boots. There I was a student being challenged by a teacher to explore a gift. I had no idea how great stepping out of your comfort zone can be for growth. I didn’t know how to approach being challenged to excel. I spent most of my young energy making sure I was doing everything according to spec OR that I wasn’t doing something that would get me in trouble. Suffice it to say, my childhood was made up more of what I wasn’t doing right than what I was doing well – perfect ingredients for low self-esteem and a finely groomed can-do-enough-to-get-by attitude.
I have no regrets about where I am now with using this gift, but I wonder. How can I not? I wonder if I had’ve joined as a Broadcast Journalist in Public Affairs would every bit of my love for writing have been creased and pressed out of me. Would I have any energy left for creative writing at the end of the day? It’s the military; there’s no doubt that I would’ve been asked to write about mind-numbing topics, ideals I didn’t believe in, or things I knew people wouldn’t care about. I can’t be 100%, but I always wonder if the authors of articles in base papers are using their gifts elsewhere, for themselves. If they’re still enjoying the craft. I’ve never asked.
There’s a part of me that thinks I could’ve had a pretty awesome other life. Left the Air Force early with a B.A. in Journalism or Communication. I’d probably still hate structured education, so probably not that part. But I’d get a spot at Fox News keeping it lowbrow. Marry a trophy. Build a house outside of Atlanta. Summers with fireworks at a Florida beach house. Who knows?
Who knows what path was waiting for me if I’d decided to meet with the Journalism Club?
Mrs. Byington didn’t ask twice, nor did it come up again. Perhaps my disgust was convincing enough.
Later, I understood how few Mrs. Byington’s I had encountered in my grade school years. A truly under appreciated, elite group of educators that were clocking in every day for the students, for us. They were determined to challenge us in ways that would unlock our potential. They called us out when we half-assed it.
Believe it or not, I knew teachers that actually wanted students to be successful. They got it. They understood that young adults have to be given opportunities to succeed and fail in order to grow.
Among Mrs. Byington, the rest of these influential all-stars for me were Mrs. Taylor-Geometry, Coach Villani-Track/Cross Country, and Señora Akin-Spanish. It’s a gift to make students want to be there. Not every teacher that showed up had it.
I’m overwhelmed with gratitude – I’m writing about it. But I also still feel a little bit of shame. Not only because I didn’t try back then, but because I’ve had so many more opportunities to be great since then and passed on them. Fear of Success is a discussion for another time.
I want the lessons I’ve learned to be clear. Magic happens outside of the comfort zone. Change happens there. You find out more about yourself. You surprise yourself. You’ll get a taste of that courage, and you’ll take more steps. You’ll try something new. It might be great for you, or you fall on your face. The only failure is in not trying.
That’s the most important piece of this story. Get out there and try.
I’m not going to look back years from now, months from now; I’m not gonna look back next week and be ashamed because I didn’t want to try at being great.
I’m gonna do my best to make sure Mrs. Byington gets a copy of this.
To you directly, Mrs. B, I know that I describe you in the past tense even though you may very well still exist presently. It’s that I’m recalling memories that take place in the past, and I don’t want to jump between tenses.
What I really want to say is THANK YOU, and I would like to join the Journalism Club.