High school is a pretty stupid time in everybody’s life. Despite all the dumb traditions, poorly taught classes, bored teachers and awkward social environments, you can still come away with little nuggets of wisdom that stay with you for the rest of your life. This is a story of what stuck with me.
I went to a middle of the road public high school in a mid-sized town two highway rings removed from Boston. The school was decent and had a pretty full lineup of classes, sports, and l activities. Students ran the gamut from ethnic kids who struggled with English to entitled brats whose parents were political and business leaders. Most of the kids meekly fell towards the lower/middle half of that equation.
The two biggest alums at the time were a Noble Prize Winner who pioneered human organ transplants. The other was a specialist of another kind – inflicting as much damage to others’ brains and organs – the NFL’sHowie Long. Joseph Murray was a second generation American whose parents emphasized the value of education. Howie Long was rumored to have been shipped out to live with his uncle in the suburbs because he caused too much trouble in Charlestown and was about to be kicked out of school.
Navigating high school advice was never easy. My guidance counselor once told me I couldn’t take art despite my desire to pursue art as a career. Lots of similar odds and ends and loose bits of knowledge flew my way. But it was in gym class that I received the most forward thinking advice.
Every cold New England winter kept gym classes inside for long months. One of the annual indoor activities at ol’ MHS was three weeks of fencing. Our class was split into lines paired up across the gym. With some rudimentary fencing equipment, including a jacket, mask, gloves and a foil, our training consisted of ‘dodge, parry, thrust’. Lined up opposite a fellow student, a whistle blew and ‘fencing’ ensued. Once a touch occurred, one person who shift to their right to face off against a new combatant.
This would continue for weeks. In the middle of one lesson, Ms. Stand, our stout, stereotypical gym teacher, gathered us all around to comment on techniques and volunteered some life advice.
We gracelessly stood in our jackets, holding our masks under our arms, trying to find a comfortable way to listen. Ms. Stand began by telling us not many people do fencing in high school. Thinking back, this was probably a pretty good way to break it to us that New England was different. She continued, telling us we may think fencing is a joke or just something fun to try to stab your friends (this was when post offices were more dangerous than schools). But she said there was value in fencing.
She looked around the room, making eye contact with every student. Then she brought home her point. “So if you’re even half good at fencing, you should go for it – practice and get really good at it.” I’m fairly certain she mentioned Harvard in particular. “Colleges give full scholarships for fencing, and you’ve already got one leg up on almost everybody else in the country.”
And with that, she blew her whistle and we all lined up in rows again, and we went back to overly-aggressively stabbing our classmates. Her advice, which was actually the most financially and logically sound, didn’t apply to me because of my hopes of going to art school. Pick something obscure, work hard at it, and maybe you’ll be rewarded. It fell on the deaf ears of a bunch of 16 year olds with no vision for their future.
I was lucky enough to score a pretty great scholarship to go to art school. I also like to imagine that I would’ve tried to pay for college with fencing had I done something normal with my life.
Bu then you read stories about rich folks photoshopping their kids’ faces onto pictures of them rowing and bribing schools up to $600,000 to let their privileged snots get into their priveleged colleges. Luckily, 47 of those awful folks were arrested, but I’m not sure anything will ever happen to the colleges involved, who lustily switched SAT scores and signed kids up to be kickers and long snappers and high jumpers.
That’s the real advice nobody tells high school kids. To get anywhere in America, you need money. Instead, Americans lie to themselves and elect a billionaire senator or president. Because billionaires always have the little man’s best interests in mind. Poor folks are given advice to fence to pay for college. Rich folks pay for their kids to be photoshopped fencing so they can get into college.
God bless you Joseph Murray. And you two Howie Long. You hard working men worked for everything you earned. It’s just unfortunate so many people have forgotten that lesson.
Of course, that’s just advice I received in high school. For the real life changing advice, I’d have to flashback to sixth grade, but that’s a story for another time…