Post-College Campus Tour

Abby, Lindsay and I with the statue of James Madison

Abby, Lindsay and I with the statue of James Madison

I visited my sister at James Madison University this past weekend.

Let me remind you, tales of my journeys are not to be taken lightly. Traveling and/or driving somewhere new is a big deal for me.

Luckily, I was not alone.

My cousin Abby is a junior in high school. She is at that magical age when you start to look at all the possibilities that are just beyond the classrooms that you begin to refer to as prison cells. But just barely. She thought (or maybe her parents thought) it would be a good idea to check out JMU. It’s easy enough to visit, while my sister is there, so why not?

We drove down on Friday morning. I won’t get too much into my little antics on the drive down–we all know I have trouble with directions. Let’s just say, my parents told me about a “shortcut” (which I guess it was) but apparently my knowledge of geography is lacking. I got a little confused (read: freaking out) when I noticed a sign for Maryland about two hours in. I thought I had somehow driven the entire way across Pennsylvania to get to Maryland. (Who knew you could go from Pennsylvania to Maryland to West Virginia to Virginia within fifteen minutes??? Obviously not me.)

Anyways….we got there just fine.

Since it was Easter weekend, Lindsay said that her roommate and suitemates would be gone for the weekend and were generously offering their beds to sleep in if we needed them.

Two of her suite-mates were still there when we got there, so we got to meet them. They said Lindsay and I are exactly alike. That’s news to me.

Overlooking the JMU campus

Overlooking the JMU campus

Then Lindsay took us on a short walking tour of the campus. And let me tell you, JMU is BEAUTIFUL. If I were in my cousin’s position, I would look no further. The campus is idyllic in that it is everything you think of when you think of going away to college and staying on a campus. It has that impressive campus feel. Pretty gray brick buildings that match, lots of walking paths, green fields, a quad, statues. Dorms were in clusters with names like Hillside and Fox and the Village. Huge dining halls and other places to eat in almost every building. (Apparently JMU is ranked #4 in best food on campus.) Not to mention the picturesque Virginia mountains in the background.

I couldn’t help comparing everything we did with my experiences at the University of Delaware. I’m not saying that I would have traded those experiences. But maybe had I looked at JMU when I was in high school, I would have considered it. I was tallying up the pros and cons, and as far as I could see in a weekend visit, there weren’t many cons.

**Maybe I should make a note here: this is not, I repeat NOT a paid endorsement for James Madison University. I swear. I was simply in love with the campus.

jamesmadisonMiraculously, we had beautiful weather that weekend. Blue skies and sun. We took pictures overlooking the campus and the mountains and with James Madison himself, of course.

We got to meet some of Lindsay’s friends and classmates, and see a few other dorms and apartments. We visited the campus bookstore and bought matching JMU t-shirts. Because everyone needs a bright neon shirt. We got to eat at the dining hall and a place called Dukes. Dining hall food is still dining hall food, no matter where you go, but I was not complaining–they had tater tots and bacon, what more could I want?

We were going to try to see a movie Saturday afternoon, but apparently they were having some electrical issues and couldn’t get the power to stay on. We ended up getting our money back, but I would have to say that was a con for the school. We went to the mall instead. Small mall but at least they had a few good stores. And it was very close to campus, close to restaurants and a bowling alley.

We went out to dinner at a place called Clementine’s. It was fantastic. I wish we could have stayed for the live music but it wasn’t until 10 PM. So after dinner we went to an ice cream place called Kline’s, where they serve their own homemade ice-cream.

On Sunday morning we went to Easter mass on campus. It was really refreshing to see a mass held on a college campus, with students singing and playing guitar.

We left soon after that. And don’t worry, we got home without any mishaps.

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There’s a lot I could say about going on this trip with  my cousin looking at colleges.

Like, how does any 17-year-old high school kid know what they’re looking for? How do they know if they want the serene, 19th-century campus, or the busy city campus? How do they know what they want to do with their lives after high school?

Or, if you had the chance, would you do it differently? Did your actual college experience hold true to those campus-tour-expectations? If you knew what else was out there, how it could have been somewhere else, would you change your mind?

I like to believe that the choices you make take you where you’re supposed to go. I wouldn’t be who I am or have some amazing people in my life if I hadn’t gone to Delaware.

But when you’re on a beautiful campus, on a gorgeous day, it’s hard not to wonder.

Real World 101

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Is there anyone who is truly well-prepared to enter the real world?

Take the average American, middle-class, suburban person. They have both parents (or even one parent, whatever), a few siblings, a few hundred dollars from birthdays in their savings account, and let’s take a look at a brief synopsis of their life.

This person goes to public school. They go to a middle school that is just trying to prepare them for the “much-harsher” high school. They get through high school, with the goal of getting into the best college possible. They have this notion that their SAT scores are everything. They have to become an outstanding student, take AP and honors courses and get all A’s. They have to get into National Honor Society, join clubs, be President, and run the Prom committee. All because they have to improve their personal chances of getting into the best school.

So they graduate high school. They’ve gotten into colleges and they make their choice. They decide what will be best for them. They take into consideration what they want to major in, where they want to live, whether they will play sports. They weigh the merits of each school, the pros and cons. They make the best choice to further their education. And then their last days of summer are behind them and they’re walking the campus and taking 8 AM classes.

Now, they get good grades because it will help them get a job. They are trying to improve their personal rankings in the long line of graduates seeking the exact same jobs. Again, they join clubs, they learn skills, they discover their talents. They make themselves better people, because it’s all about them. It’s about them getting somewhere. It’s about how they will live the rest of their lives.

It’s all about them.

And then they get that job. Whatever that job may be, good or bad, high-paying or minimum wage. They get it. Congrats.

And then suddenly, it’s not all about them anymore. It’s about the company. It’s about keeping the boss happy. It’s about communicating what you’re doing in your daily tasks with the other people who are doing their own daily tasks, all in the attempt to make the company or organization or business better. It’s about anticipating what others will need before they have a chance to yell at you. If the company goes bankrupt, loses money, has to lay off workers, then you are losing money and/or out of a job.

It’s not about you. At all. 

So where did we go wrong? Or maybe the question should be, why?

Why are we told from the very beginning that it’s all about us, that we are individuals and we will succeed or fail alone, if in reality, it’s about the company and the group and the collective?

If you don’t turn your homework in, you fail the class. You get a bad grade. Your GPA drops. Your class rank falls. You fail. Your poor work ethic doesn’t hurt anyone but yourself. 

But if you don’t finish the project that you’re working on at your job, if you don’t close the deal, it is the company that pays the price. The sales drop, you lose a client, you lose money. The fault might be yours, but the consequences affect the group.

How did we come up with this backwards way of teaching children and educating the young workforce? What if we had told students that if one person was failing, none of them would get an A? Don’t you think everyone would do everything they could to help that kid get his homework done? Maybe that sounds too much like socialism. People don’t like socialism. People like to know that if they do a good job personally, that they will be rewarded.

Usually that’s the way it is in the workplace. People who excel at their jobs get promoted. But you can’t excel at your job if you’re not looking at the bigger picture. If you don’t see the work that everyone else is doing and if you can’t align your needs with the needs of the organization as a whole, then your disconnected way of thinking will never get you anywhere.

Somewhere along the line, someone came up with this “me, me, me” attitude towards teaching in schools. But then kids get to their jobs in the real world and they aren’t prepared. They aren’t prepared to write someone else’s to-do lists and manage their boss’s schedules and book flights for their co-workers and file paperwork that doesn’t belong to them. It’s this whole new way of thinking. When all you have to do is worry about your own life and your own schedule, life is easy. But put the needs of ten or twenty or a hundred other people onto your to-do list and suddenly your public school, college education just went out the window, because you’ve never had to do that before and no one prepared you.

Real life isn’t sitting in class, taking notes and passing a test. So why do colleges think they are preparing us for our careers?

 

 

(photo via)

Enough of 2012, Bring on the New Year

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The last time I took a moment to reflect about an entire year, I was a freshman in college and had experienced so much change between high school and the University of Delaware that it would have been wrong for me not to think back on it and appreciate it. At that time, I was growing up, moving out, making new friends, having new experiences and learning from everything.

This too, has been a year of changes. If I could have made a prediction years ago about where I would be at this point in my life, it would not be here. I would not be living at home with my parents, I would not still be serving at a restaurant, I would not even be in Pittsburgh. But now that I’m here, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Today, January 1st, 2013, looks just like yesterday, December 31, 2012. The sky is gray, snowflakes are falling gently from the sky onto what already looks like a foot of snow on the ground. The house is cold, the coffee is brewing, the TV is on. But people love a new year because we all want to say goodbye to the old and look ahead to what we have to come. We want closure for our troubles and we want a new beginning, a fresh start.

Well last night, my fresh start began with a glass of champagne and my dog, hanging out in the kitchen watching my parents and their friends play “Catchphrase.” I had to work last night. And I guess it was a fitting way to end the year. This year that I spent more time in a restaurant waiting tables than I did anywhere else. Why not end it that way too? But this is starting to sound depressing and my year was anything but. So I’ve said before, the best place to begin a story is at the beginning.

Last year I celebrated the new year in Buffalo, New York with a kiss from my boyfriend in a room full of strangers. It was a scene from a movie and it was perfect. A perfect prelude for the year to come.

I was finishing up my senior year of college. From January through May, my days mostly alternated between waitressing and going to classes. During my final semester, I only had to take three classes and had four day weekends. Which of course left more time for working. I worked a lot, but I made a little time for fun.

I enjoyed a memorable end to the production of my student-run television show. We successfully produced five shows during the spring semester and celebrated our accomplishments. I worked with some great people on that show, people with big ideas who will definitely go places. Without them, the show would not have been the same.

Jim and I took a short trip to Washington, D.C. in March to walk through all of the museums. It was an absolutely wonderful day. We went to Virginia Beach for a few days together during our spring break. The weather wasn’t on our side, but we had more fun than I thought possible in such a short amount of time.

In April I was honored to be a bridesmaid in my cousin’s wedding and watch her walk down the aisle to her new husband, so obviously in love and so obviously perfect for each other.

Jim dragged me to a Rick Ross concert at the end of our senior year. I tried to keep an open mind, allow my musical tastes to expand. But I don’t think they expanded that much.

I graduated from the University of Delaware at the end of May, one day before I turned 22. I graduated cum laude with a degree in Communication, a well-rounded resume and no job to speak of. I decided to celebrate anyway.

And then I had what I’m sure will later become known as The Summer of Frustration. The day after I moved back home, I pulled out the computer and typed up cover letters, tweaked my resume and scoured the job boards. I had goals, I had a system, I read “how-to-get-a-job” blogs and “how-to-ace-an-interview” articles (although I didn’t get many interviews). I updated my social media profiles and launched Measure with Coffee Spoons. I went on a solo trip to New York City to meet with a friend’s boss and talk about her company. And in between all that, I watched seasons three through seven of Grey’s Anatomy. Jim and I travelled back and forth between Pittsburgh and Buffalo. I went to a few Pirates games with my family. I went on my family vacation to Myrtle Beach. I babysat. I taught private swimming lessons. And I started running. All the while, wallowing in self-pity because I was job-less, living at home, and I missed my Delaware friends terribly.

By the end of the summer, I got hired at a new restaurant as a server and things started to look up. I took my nose ring out, got off the couch, and got a Macbook. I started interning at Steeltown Entertainment Project and loved it. I volunteered to work as a production assistant for an independent film being produced in the area.

Through all of that, I met some of the greatest people. I worked with some great servers and chefs and kids they call server’s assistants. People who love restaurant work and people who are in it for the money. People with big dreams and small incomes. People who are juggling school and work and children and husbands. People who are taking a break from school but when they go, they’ll make something of themselves. People who are perfectionists, who want every lemon on every plate to be facing the same way. People who don’t care, who bus the tables and get their stuff done so they can go out with friends. People who have climbed the ladder, who’ve fallen and gotten back up. You don’t know their stories, but they are inspirational.

I met great people on the set of “Lemonade.” People who are doing what they love, even if they don’t get paid for it. People who know what they want and are working to get there. People who don’t know what they want, but are figuring it out. People who have exactly what they want and every scene is a relaxing joy for them.

And I’ve met great people at Steeltown. People whom I hope to get to know better. Because I’ve accepted my first real job with them. And I start tomorrow.

This past year was about meeting and spending time with some amazing people. They helped me get where I am and I wouldn’t be who I am without them.

Here’s to closure for 2012. Now bring on the new year.

(photo via)

My name is Meg and I’ll be your server this evening…

It’s the job you get during college, to make money for weekend fun and to stock up on Easy Mac. It’s the job you get because your parents want you out of the house during the summer. It’s the job you get because you spent all your money on weekend fun and now real life is glaring right in front of you after graduation. And then it’s the job you get because the real job seems to be eluding you, the unemployment rate is rising ever higher and you can’t stand one more day in your parents’ house.

Waitress. Server. Restaurant work. Busboy. Server’s assistant. Runner. Cook. Dishwasher. Whatever you want to call it. You’re working in a restaurant because it’s probably the one job where the unemployment rate is practically 0%. Restaurants are constantly turning over employees, whether they lose them to high school or college, or people leave for their real jobs, or they show up late and hungover one too many times. And if one certain restaurant doesn’t seem to be having any of those problems then there are a hundred others within a 20 minute radius of your house that would take you.

Restaurant work is not very difficult. It’s repetitive. Table sits. Greet, drinks, take orders, serve food, refill drinks, offer dessert, check. Goodbye, next table please.

It’s all about what you do to earn that tip. You have to be pleasant, smile, leave your emotions at the door. Forget about the fight you had with your parents, forget about the fact that your girlfriend hasn’t texted you all day–any little sign you show of not wanting to be waiting on that table lowers your tip a little more. Be funny. Tell a little joke that will make the people at your table laugh and distract them from the fight they are having with their spouse. Don’t check on them too often and certainly don’t forget about them. Make them feel like they are the only table you have, even if you are running around like a crazy person and sweat is glistening on your forehead. Just try to wipe the sweat away before you ask them if they are enjoying their meal.

If the people at your table are just not having any of it–the food is wrong no matter how it’s cooked, your service is terrible even though you’ve done nothing wrong, the check is too high even though you rang everything in correctly–then you force that smile to your ears as you say, “Thank you for dining with us today and please have a wonderful evening.” And don’t let them see you slam the kitchen door behind you in utter exasperation.

These are some of the things I’ve learned through working in a few different restaurants. I’m sure other servers will tell you the same thing. Restaurant work is not much different, no matter where you are. Some tables are great and others are frustrating, needy, complaining, and don’t leave good tips. In fact, if you watch the movie Waitingyou’ll get a good idea of what it’s like to be a server (with about 92% accuracy, minus the spitting). But  you might actually have to be a server to think it’s funny.

I started waiting tables in college, after I stopped swimming. I suddenly had an extra 20+ hours of time on my hands and I realized I was out of money. Miraculously, a restaurant that was just an eight minute walk from my house hired me as a server, knowing that the only work experience I’d ever had involved swimsuits and lane lines. But they trained me well, taught me the ten core values, drilled the mission statement into my head and gave me a huge written test involving every topping, dressing, and vegetable in the house. And I had “earned my kilt.” (It was an Irish restaurant and our uniform included a mini-kilt.) I became a great server and I loved the people I worked with. I hated 35 cent wing night, $5 burgers and selling shots, but I made enough money to get me through my senior year.

Last summer, I worked at a small bar and grille that might be considered a step down from the college bar. I got two days of training and then they shoved me at a table, where I proceeded to screw everything up because they hadn’t bothered to let me learn the menu. I hated the people I worked with and hated the hours. But hey, they let me read my book in front of customers when I was bored, so I didn’t complain–much.

And now I’m making a huge step up, I believe. I’m currently waiting–both on real-world jobs and on tables. The restaurant is nicer than one I could afford for dinner and so far, the people I’m working with are great. They trained me well, and it was easier to pick up since I’d already been well-trained before. I made a few flash cards to learn the menu and the manager validated me with confidence.

Those early lessons I learned from my first restaurant at college will always get me through the rough shifts. No one taught them to me, they were lessons that could only truly be learned from experience. “Please” and “Thank you” go a long way– with customers, managers, fellow servers, and cooks and dishwashers. Help bus tables, even if it’s not your table or your job–someone will help you later on when you need it. If you’re not sure about an entree or an ingredient or how to ring something in, ask. It’s worse to completely screw up an order and waste food. And always, always smile. You might make someone’s day. And yes, it’s almost always all about the tip, but you never know what kind of nice, interesting, or wonderful people you might meet.

So, welcome. My name is Meg and I will be your server this evening. (smile)

A Clean Face Means College is Over

Yesterday, I took out my nose ring for good. That tiny little diamond stud curling delicately into the side of my right nostril was the symbol of my youth, my college years, my attempted rebellion. It was the “stupid thing” you’re supposed to do when you’re young that your parents don’t know about, but I made sure my stupidity wasn’t permanent. I didn’t even ever think it was stupid. It was just–me.

In a world of trying to fit in and dress the right way and act like everyone else, I wanted to stand out in one small way. I had to go to every class, get a high GPA and make every swim practice and volunteer and participate in clubs; I was the oldest, the almost-type-A, organized and smart, setting a good example. In high school I felt like there was that small rebel in me just trying to break free. I was the one in the family who never screwed up, never got a detention, never skipped school, never stayed out too late or went to parties–I was the good girl. So I got my nose pierced.

It could hardly be considered “rebellion” when you look at the rebellious things kids really do. But it was something that no one would believe I would do. I wanted shock and awe, but nothing too outrageous. No gauges or industrial bars or skull and crossbones. A simple stud would do.

Freshman year of college, after the swimming season ended, I took a bunch of my friends to a sketchy tattoo parlor on Kirkwood Highway. They held my hand while the three-inch needle poked out of my face, and I was just laughing. It hurt so much that I was laughing and I just about broke their knuckles. It’s funny how you don’t see your nose on your face until there is an unfamiliar object stuck into it. For a few weeks afterward, I was so aware of the glittering jewelry in my face that people probably thought I’d gone cross-eyed from looking down at it.

I reveled in the second looks people gave me, I loved that they thought I was cool or brave. They asked me if it hurt, if my parents knew; or they told me I was stupid because I’d have a hole in my nose for the rest of my life. I hadn’t told my parents, but they would find out when I went home for Easter. I have tons of freckles so the hole is not that noticeable to anyone who’s not looking for it. I was just basking in the glory of doing something rash and spur of the moment and what I considered rebellious. (I had only considered my decision to get my nose pierced for about a day before actually doing it.) I even found myself turning my head for pictures so that it might show up. You could only see it if it caught the flash, and those were my favorite pictures of myself.

I’ve taken it out before and put it back in with no problem. In fact, I had an internship last summer and I took it out every morning that I had to work and put it back in at the end of the day. I’ve taken it out for a few job interviews. But yesterday I took it out forever. It was time. College is over, the parties are behind me, and the rebel in me is being forced into submission in order to find a job. Employers don’t want to interview someone with a distracting stud in their nose. They don’t want someone to stand out with a nose ring in a sea of earrings. They want clean-cut and normal. They want subtle femininity, clean and polished. No one wants the girl with holes in her face. (At least this is what I have been told about employers.)

So in my effort to find a job and impress people with how clean-cut and put together I am, I took it out. I also had to take it out because my new waitressing job doesn’t tolerate facial piercings either. It felt like I was finally putting my college years behind me. It’s sad because college was the best four years of my life (thus far) and my little stud was a reminder of all of that. It represented growing up and figuring things out for myself. It was my personal statement that I was not just another face in the sea of college students. But taking it out means growing up too, and moving on with my life. It’s an affirmation that I’m not going back to school and I have to look forward to the real world; and I will do so with a nose-ring-less face.

The Boys of Title IX

As a girl who tried out almost every sport at least once before finally finding my niche, I must say that I owe it to Title IX. Not that I knew it at the time. Starting at five years old, I was introduced to organized team sports and I didn’t know any different. I thought all parents automatically signed their children up for t-ball and soccer when they turned five. Of course that’s not the case, but I couldn’t compare.

So my story followed the path of a shy child, with flat feet, who couldn’t run if the world was ending. Naturally, I was signed up for soccer at age five and failed miserably. Age six– slow-pitch softball and I was afraid to catch the ball. I suffered through that sport for two years. The next year that I would have played was supposed to be fast-pitch and I refused to go back. For a few years in there, from about age five to age eight or nine, I did dance–ballet, tap and jazz. I took a few tennis lessons each summer, maintaining amateur level with my backhand. I signed up for a gymnastics try-out week. When they wanted me to do a flip over an 8-foot-high bar, I realized my fear of heights. My mom signed me up for an ice skating lesson–the only thing I learned was how to properly fall so that someone else skating by doesn’t slice your fingers off. Finally, at age nine, I joined the Hampton Dolphins swim club. And the rest is history. I swam for twelve years, three years varsity at a Division 1 college. I can’t say I loved every single minute. But I loved most of the minutes. So thank you Title IX.

The 40th anniversary of the passing of Title IX is tomorrow, hence my seemingly random thoughts about my many team sports failures. Once I learned, probably in middle school at some point, that Title IX was responsible for all of my childhood mishaps with soccer balls and balance beams, I became intrigued. Title IX became the subject of many school projects and papers throughout high school and college. I was curious because I couldn’t imagine a time when girls weren’t allowed to play sports. It boggled my mind. My parents always told me I could do anything I wanted to. So here we are, 40 years later, and girls can do anything. We have female wrestlers, football players, body builders. We have girls basketball, soccer, and softball teams. It is pointless for me to even list all the sports because girls have an opportunity in all of them. Even if it might be hard for a girl to get onto a professional football team, it is possible for her to try. So the evidence is clear that Title IX has done wonders. And not just in sports, because that is not the only reason why Title IX was passed, that’s just the most prominent thing that stands out to the public.

So why bring it up then? If it’s simply a fact of life now, then why keep talking about it? Because first of all, girls and boys are still not entirely equal in schools and in sports. Girls still have some ways to go in some parts of the country. Second of all, people continue to look at Title IX from the girls’ perspective. But what about the boys? What about the wrestler whose college team got cut right before his senior year when he is about to be voted captain? What about the schools that cut track and cross country because their football team brings in way more revenue than track teams could dream of? When looking at the big picture, people argue that boys teams have not been hurt overall. That there are other opportunities for them and that just because a few teams get cut does not lower the overall rate of boys in sports, and the gap between girls and boys in sports is still decreasing.

I think Title IX is a good thing. But I also sympathize with the boys whose dreams have been crushed or altered because of it. The big picture is beautiful, yes. But look at it from that one boy’s perspective.

As a swimmer, the effects of Title IX on boys teams has hit a little closer to home for me than for someone else maybe. When I was looking at colleges, I was trying to find a school where I could swim. One school seemed great; the team seemed fun, the academics were awesome–but they told me that was the last year for their boys team. I eliminated it from my choices. I wanted to swim with boys. Swimming is a co-ed sport and I had always swam with boys. They motivated me and made the team more interesting and I wouldn’t swim at a school without a boys team. So I may have been a great asset to that school, but they missed out. They shouldn’t have cut their boys team.

My boyfriend, whom I met on the swim team in college, told me that he had wanted to go to Rhode Island, that he was signed and ready to go to Rhode Island. They called him last minute, telling him they cut their boys team. (Thank God, or I wouldn’t have met him. Best decision Rhode Island ever made.) So he had to change his plans. He was in line for a scholarship from RI, but at Delaware, boys scholarships weren’t really available (they were saved for football). So I watched his dreams change as he adjusted to the consequences of Title IX.

During the spring semester in 2011, I had the opportunity of speaking with several of the athletes on the UD Track and Cross Country teams. I invited them on my TV show to talk about the fact that the school had just reduced these varsity teams to club status. There was outrage across campus about this decision. Students couldn’t understand why the football team (which wasn’t the best football team) couldn’t get slightly less funding. They couldn’t understand why the university couldn’t promote a girls club team to varsity status to make the participation equal. I’m sure it was a difficult decision for the school and they felt this was the best option. But when you talk to these kids, as individuals who were really great athletes, who had planned their lives to run track at UD, and you see their varsity-level team get swept out from under them with hardly any warning, then you wonder about Title IX. The track and cross country athletes had dinner with the president of the university to voice their complaints. They signed petitions and spoke to kids around campus. 

These are the boys who are affected by Title IX and just because their numbers may be small in terms of the bigger picture, their sport was important to them. Their individual stories will always be affected by Title IX.

There is no denying that Title IX is doing a great job of promoting sports for girls and enabling their involvement. However, there must be some other way to continue this progress without cutting boys teams in order be be in compliance. Talk to any boy whose team has been cut or downgraded to club status. I’m sure they have some ideas.

The Best of Luck

My sister graduated from high school yesterday. She wore my white gown and straightened her long hair and posed with our parents and her friends. She walked with way more elegance than I had four years ago. She graduated in the top 10% of her class and wore a sash to show her membership in the National Honors Society. She’ll be going to James Madison University to study nursing. She looked beautiful last night, in the setting sun, the slight drizzle from a single obstinate rain cloud, with a double rainbow in the background of a newly renovated football stadium. She has it way more together than I did.

As I sat in the stands, holding a program over my head to fend off the rain (having dutifully forgotten the umbrella that was sitting on the floor of the car, merely 100 yards away), I looked forward to the Commencement speeches and hearing what the students had to say about their high school experience. I’m always curious what words of wisdom an 18-year-old can come up with, having not seen much of the world from our “bubble” as we call our town. As I was sitting listening to the speeches of my sister’s classmates, I suddenly and sadly realized that I don’t remember who spoke at my own graduation. I don’t remember their words of wisdom or their hopes for the future. I don’t remember my brother’s graduation speeches two years ago either. As much as I look forward to hearing what people say, all I remember from them are words that are hopeful and happy, remembering wonderful days of high school and looking forward to making dreams come true. That’s what high school graduation speeches are always about.

But in my experience, high schools days were not always that happy. Dreams don’t come true right away. The world doesn’t change just because you go to college in a different city. I may sound slightly cynical here, but I’m only telling the truth. High school is a long, hard road with bullies and mean girls, failed grades, terrible relationships, love found and lost, a rollercoaster of emotions and milestones. I think everyone would also agree that the entire, roughly 260-person, class of 2008, or 2012 (or whichever year you graduated) was definitely not all friends. When I graduated there were a few people I had never even met. (This is not to say that I never had fun. I had plenty of good times in high school.)

So when students go to the podium and face the crowd of proud and expectant parents, they tell them what everyone wants to hear. That their time at school could not have been better. That they worked hard, played hard, had fun, but learned so much in the process. That they all grew up and became the best of friends and now that they’re parting ways, they will move on to bigger and better things, but retain their loyalty to the place where they grew up and the people that helped them along the way. This is what parents and administrators like to hear.

(As a side note, my high school no longer ranks students in terms of GPA, so instead of valedictorian and salutatorian speeches, they chose and carefully selected the “best” entries from the students’ speech submissions.)

This year, the school chose as their distinguished alumnus, a man who has worked as a cinematographer for National Geographic, BBC, the Discovery Channel, and ABC. He was not able to be at the Commencement to give his speech, so his childhood friend stepped up for him. What stood out in his speech was his continuous reference to how hard he worked and how he made the dreams in his life come true.

I disagree with his philosophy. I think that it does take a certain amount of effort to achieve your dreams. It does take hard work to get through college and earn a degree. But really, living out your dreams is largely a matter of luck. If your dream is to become a professional baseball player for example, it is luck that brings the right recruiter to the right game where you happen to play well. If you want to work at National Geographic, you can work as hard as you like, practicing photography and researching. But it is luck that brings you into contact with the editor on your vacation in Naples. Out of all the millions of people that you could meet, you must be lucky enough to meet the right person, at the right time, who will make your dreams come true.

This distinguished alumnus also acknowledged in his speech that some of the graduating seniors may not know what they want to do with their lives or what they want to be. And he told them that that’s okay. He said there is plenty of time to figure out who you are and to take the necessary steps to get there. Again, I disagree. As a senior in high school, I was one of those grads, sitting on the field, drinking in advice like this. I had no idea what I wanted to be “when I grew up.” Now four years later, I wish I had taken a little time to explore more and figure it out. If you don’t know where you want to go, then you don’t know how to proceed, and it will take you a lot longer to get there than if you had taken the time to figure it out sooner. Talk to anyone who has changed their major more than once and they will tell you. They are spending thousands of extra dollars “figuring it out,” completing their degree years behind their peers and entering the workforce with a disadvantage because they didn’t get the same internships, not to mention they have more debt. Everyone needs some kind of goal, or you will never achieve anything. So those speakers at Commencements who are telling students that it is perfectly okay to not have a clue what you want to do are lying. Have some kind of clue.

So I look at my beautiful, confident, radiant sister and I applaud her. I commend her for working so hard in high school, for discovering her talents, and already having her dreams in sight. I hope she thinks back on her high school days as mostly fun and wonderful. I hope she goes to JMU with an open mind and an open heart, and always remembers where she came from. And most of all, I hope she continues working hard, but I also wish her a little luck.