Back to the Future
Two weeks ago at approximately 4:32 p.m., I jumped ship from the Platonic Love Boat and walked to Philips Gym, where I joined a few dozen teammates aboard a charter bus bound for a distant track meet, the third big event of the day. Fifteen minutes prior, I'd submitted my application to Teach For America. Four hours prior, I'd had a big lunch. Six hours prior (I guess that makes four), I'd faced a panel of college administrators for a fellowship interview, competing with another finalist for a $10,000 grant that would fund the project I've been able to share with millions of readers through this blog, and which I'll be running in DC this summer and beyond, if all goes well.
As I scooted in one of the front row seats (always a good idea in college, when you no longer have to sit at the back of the bus to be cool: quicker bathroom access upon arrival at destination), my dear friend Piper asked from a few rows back how the interview had gone.
"Not bad," I replied. Which was true. I thought I'd been fairly articulate, able to temper my ebullience enough to seem at least marginally adult-like (emphasis on the AD, which is how adults say it). None of the questions had thrown me wildly off course (though my ever-mindful meta-mind noticed in the midst of all the action that I was beginning every answer with "that's a good question" to buy more time to think; an ingenious strategy, no doubt, and decidedly better than the alternative -- "Man, what's with all these crappy questions? Who picked this panel?!").
Upon further interrogation by Piper, I bumped my evaluation of the interview up to "good." Which was true. The fact that I hadn't gotten the fellowship--that I already knew the outcome, thanks to an email I'd gotten 15 minutes before boarding the bus--went unmentioned.
It also didn't come up when my teammate Tino asked me how the interview had gone a minute or two later. "We'll see," I said, by which I meant you'll see when I post a long angsty blog about it.
I couldn't break the news to my buddies. Besides thrusting upon them the awkward onus of having to come up with nice things to say, I'd have to publicly admit defeat. I hate defeat. (Plus, I wanted to provide them with some of the suspense the panel had not allowed me, having handing down the verdict only a few hours after I left the Bonner Center's conference room.) Tilting my head back against the seat as we barreled along the Ohio highway, I tried to reconcile this turn of events with my Life Plan. Picking at a scab not yet hardened, I actually just entertained the listless solipsism of misery.
Four smart people giving you the thumbs-down serves as something of a reality check, a de facto warning about the quality or at least viability of your idea. The Notification gave no indication of why my project wasn't chosen, no mention of anything except a suggestion to apply to the Creativity and Leadership Fellowship, a plan already in place and an even longer shot. Without any particular reasons for rejection, I agonized over the whole plan and began seeing what I'd believed to be rock-solid six hours before in a much grimmer light.
But nothing had tangibly changed about it after I got the email. Objectively speaking, my project was the strongest it'd ever been, having done much work in the week leading up to the interview. It was the foundations (my own, not the ones that I want to give me money) that were shaken. Maybe the model couldn't work.... There is insidious persuasion in the disbelief of others.
Which is coming from more than one corner. I'd discovered a few days earlier that I hadn't been selected for the Davis Projects for Peace fellowship. This hadn't fazed me much since it wasn't the best fit for my proj by any means--plus I found out at the same time that I'd made the interview stage for the Dalai Lama Fellows! (I didn't get that either, in case you skipped the first few paragraphs of this post and decided this looked like a promising place to jump in [in that case, I advise you to skip another few].)
I first fessed up to my Mom, who instantly took on the herculean task of trying to spin it into a success. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for recognizing the value of failure (one of my favorite posts on the wall of our indoor track is a saying of Ben Franklin's: "That which hurts, instructs."). But it's hard to value this failure at more than $10,000, hard to convince myself I got a real bargain as runner-up. Recalling those halcyon days in DC, firing away at this stuff with every single waking hour (handouts from our fellowship office advise you to dedicate as much time to the fellowship app process as you would for a three-credit class; at first I strongly suspected they were overstating the case; now I think they're underselling the required effort), all that work, its significance vaporized in an instant, these emails turning my inbox into a minefield--click and boom.
Among the many things that sprang to mind in the DL aftermath was, Who are these people beating me?
It's an easy answer. For the Davis and Dalai Lama nominations, it's fellow Obies. Quoting from my Watson rejection letter, "As I'm sure you know, your toughest competition for a Watson is here at Oberlin." Students at Oberlin have good freaking ideas. And I wouldn't have it any other way; the chance to be surrounded by activists who care about social issues was one of the main reasons I decided to come here. I plan to console myself partly by seeing what cool stuff these other Obies have come up with.
But with all such info still under wraps, the only thing that really helps is recalling lists of killer books that were rejected tons of times before publication. Thirty-eight publishers turned down Gone with the Wind. James Joyce's Dubliners was continually submitted to publishers until one--the 23rd--finally accepted it. A Wrinkle in Time, the true classic of our age, garnered 26 nopes. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected 121 times and the inaugural book of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series 140 times... (Here's the website I'm getting all this from in case you too were recently rejected and want to feel better about it.) And that's without even mentioning J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or Faulkner, whose early rejections are well-known. Man, I'm joining the company of legends!
It gets better. Last Friday I got an email from CGIU, telling me I was not in fact invited to their conference this spring. There went my break plans, and the week of March 26-30 suddenly blossomed wide open, into a ten-day stint of solo campus existence and Subway sandwiches. How Jon Stewart got invited but not me, I'll never know.
On the plus side, I've gotten the last two Notification less than an hour before leaving for track meets, which provided enough residual angst to punish myself into running PRs in the mile--three in a row now. (The plan, my assistant coach told me, is to send me an email masquerading as a foundation before every race, informing me that the fellowship is highly selective, my time is appreciated, but I was unfortunately not selected.)
I keep waiting for one of these emails to start with Congratulations. Or Heck yeah, you innovative thug, here's some dough--get 'r done!
In the hours after the DL interview, I'd been feeling pretty confident, allowing myself to paint the tenuous future with detail, a vision that shattered harder after the news was broken than it would have it it'd been less concretely imagined. Each time I get a no, my backup plan becomes less of a backup plan. I feel the approach of a quotidian post-college gig, I fear the inexorable pull towards becoming normal. Each loss is another brick in the road oft-taken (to spin a cliché misinterpreting Frost's poem), paving it into a smooth and sometimes appealing path. But I still have a choice of whether or not I walk that road. At least how long I stay on it before I begin bushwhacking.
Over the holidays on a visit to see the fam in Rhode Island, I spent a good hour chatting with my hip & beloved Uncle Peter, who runs a small construction business called Pete & Sons (though his sons, all under middle-school age, aren't living up to their end of the name). Besides hatching a million-dollar idea to found an editorial consulting firm for self-published e-books and securing a promise from him to door-knock for me when I run for president, I got an earful about the Lamoureux curse he claims afflicts the extended Lam Fam, which has historically prevented us from making the Forbes 400,000 or holding higher political office (like dogcatcher).
This is on top of yet another Lamoureux curse that I've gotten to witness first-hand: prematurely gray hair. At 37, Uncle Peter is far more salt than pepper. And at 32 when Dad married Mom, he was already on his way to Mr. Fantastic temples. (The link should give you an idea of what I mean if you're not a comics nerd.)
Happily, though, he was fantastic-esque in another way, in that he discovered the secret countercharms to the more debilitating Lamoureux curse: ambition and hard work. The only one of seven siblings to go to college, Dad got into a PhD program at Brown (philosophy) with thoughts of becoming a lawyer. Since he didn't have the financial support he's currently giving me, he ran out of dough and had to drop out. Curse!!! But he promptly joined the army as a private (where "no one cared" that he'd read a lot of books), got into mental health (because the recruiter confused philosophy with psychology and told Dad there was a whole department in the Army dedicated to philosophy), rose in rank to Lieutenant Colonel (two steps below general), and has helped thousands of people in his career as a social worker (better than lawyer, no?). Somewhere in there he met Mom, another great accomplishment, but the details are a little fuzzy.
Anyway, I reckon most families believe themselves the singular victims of such a curse, especially since nothing saps the will to employ the countercharms like a serious setback. The countercharms definitely aren't magic.
In previously citing the great books rejected multiple times, I don't mean to imply that my genius has been overlooked (though it has) but that I'll eventually make it. None of those authors gave up. I'm currently reading (having it sprawled open on my night table to the page where I was before the semester got too hectic counts as reading, right?) Work Hard. Be Nice., an account of the founding of the Knowledge Is Power Program by two TFA alumni. It's more instructional than it is inspirational, and instructional in the revelation that those dudes were not merely persistent in advancing their goals--they were annoyingly persistent.
At an education luncheon yesterday (organized by Andy Frantz as part of a highly recommended series), the keynote speaker, an energetic nonprofiteer -- David Wish, founder of Little Kids Rock -- shared with us a quote from everyone's favorite president, Calvin Coolidge:
Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'Press On' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.
That about sums it up.
Along with a flashback to January 15th: During an incredibly al dente spaghetti dinner, I get a call from my Pop. I'm right in the middle of tossing my skeet discs skyward (writing/submitting applications, for the non-metaphorically-minded). Fate has yet to load its shotgun and start firing. We talk about all kinds of things, including our writing goals, and toward the end of our chat, Dad informs me he plans to live for another 10 years or so, 14 at the most.
"No, Dad! You've gotta stick around to see me do something big."
"Better move quick," Dad says. "I want to see you hit at least one home-run ball... Or get me a grandkid -- that'd be fine too."
As you can see, the heat is on. Not for the grandkid, but for the grand plan. (Though Dad's a spry 59 and had better commit to a longer tenure than that, for the record.)
And so my partner-in-crime Reuben Benzel and I met with Mr. Baylis, the principal of OHS, last week and got the thumbs-up to run a pilot there in April. I signed up for a grant-writing class which I'm using as platform for further development of both plan and project. I'm hungrily hunting down more mentors, including Professor Dawson as a curricular advisor. I've seriously revised the model, even going so far as to change the name. And I'm still pitching, having submitted the project last week to the Dell Social Innovation Challenge. Even if my project doesn't take one of the three coveted top spots, it's eligible for a $1,000 People's Choice award based on how many votes it gets.
Now there's no point to being a blogger if you don't abuse the position to plug your efforts, so allow me to casually mention that it only takes like 30 seconds to vote for it. And, man, would I appreciate it. I'd put those 30 seconds back in your life somehow! Like, maybe I'll cut this blog post a few paragraphs short or something like