“I awoke this morning with devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and the new.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Michael, my third son, never liked the private school we sent him to. Like his two elder brothers before him, he was unhappy not with the academic requirements and rigors but with the social ones. Proud of putting more graduates into Ivy League universities than any other Florida prep school, St. Andrews attracts students whose parents are educated, accomplished, competitive, and wealthy. Not surprisingly, most of the students that are accepted into St. Andrews are the same.
The competition, however, is all about wealth and power. Who has the most expensive car . . . who lives in the biggest house . . . whose dad has the most millions. This leads to a sort of cage fighting over social status where students who either can’t compete in this arena (the scholarship students and the students whose parents go into debt to get their kids into the school) or don’t want to compete. (The kids interested in “other” things, such as learning, are bullied, badgered, insulted, and always excluded.)
I didn’t know this when we enrolled our eldest son there. My then-partner’s children went to St. Andrews, and I admired their manners, their eloquence, and their demeanor. But either something happened that degraded the school experience or I was simply blind from the first. The teachers seemed tuned in and caring. The headmaster believed in many of the things my wife and I believe in — hard work, serious subjects, discipline, etc. But our boys didn’t like it. Liam became a loner and stayed that way even after “the girls decided he was good-looking and he became cool” (as his lone friend later told me). Patrick surrounded himself with a small gang of self-described music nerds and ignored the others. But Michael wouldn’t give up the dream of being liked by the “in” crowd and kept trying to ingratiate himself to them. This resulted only in daily disappointments, some merely embarrassing but others downright humiliating. It’s not pleasant to learn about the gritty details of your child’s suffering. You feel bad. You feel like doing something about it. But since there is virtually nothing you can do that won’t make matters worse, you tell yourself, “This is the kind of pain my child needs. It will make him stronger.”
And you do what you can to teach your child about attitude, how he might be able to enjoy himself more if he cared less. But such lessons are very hard even for adults to put into practice, and adults generally undergo much milder social assaults than children do.
Like most kids his age, Michael was very resilient. For three years, he endured the daily insults, the shoving, the pushing, the name-calling and gestures. His brothers sometimes advised him about fighting back — not physically (this would have been his father’s method) but with equally caustic repartee. “If you can give it to them as hard as they give it to you, they will leave you alone,” they said.
Michael apparently made some progress there, but his unceasing desire to be accepted by his taunters sent him back again and again for more punishment. Finally, he had enough. He told us he wanted out. He didn’t want to continue his education by moving on to St. Andrews High School. He would rather go to the local public school instead.
We weren’t thrilled with that idea. Our local school puts more kids in prison than it does college. But we were almost prepared to let him go there when he came up with an alternative idea. He would get accepted into the Palm Beach County School of the Arts.
His chances of getting into the theater program (his only interest) at this school were eight in 300. He had done some precocious acting in a few grammar-school productions, but now he’d be competing against seriously talented kids from Miami to Orlando. What would another rejection do to his self-esteem? I hinted at the question in conversations, but he was determined to try.
Michael prepared for the battery of interviews, essays, and tryouts. And he received help from the aunts and uncles who could help him. (He was lucky in that respect. Half my siblings are or were in the theater.) When the day finally came, he returned from his ordeal confident and happy with his results.
And, by George, he got in!
That shouldn’t have been as astonishing as I found it. But what was truly remarkable was what happened during the next school year. I had expected that Michael’s new school would be just as full of nastiness and cruelty as the old one. I figured he’d learn a valuable lesson — that you can’t get rid of your problems by trying to run away from them. He proved me wrong. On the very first day, he came home beaming. “I love this school,” he told me. “I already have two good friends, and everyone else is really nice.”
As the days and then weeks passed, his assessment didn’t dim. In fact, it got better. I wondered how was it that a public school full of competitive artists could be so socially benign. He had an answer for that: “Everybody is a nerd or weirdo,” he said. “So we all accept one another.”
It is now late November, and Michael has been happy in school for three months running. I am, needless to say, very thankful that he has had this blessed change in his life. But I’m equally thankful about the things he has taught me:
- Teenagers are not automatically cruel.
- High school isn’t necessarily a mean environment.
- Competition can be kind.
- Sometimes, it is better to quit and run.
And most of all, he taught me that when the most important thing you can be has to do with who you really are — what your talents and desires and hopes are, and not with what you have (what kind of car, clothes, jewelry) — an amazing number of good things can take place.
I have many things to be thankful for. This year, Michael’s brave and successful transformation is one of them. So is Liam’s solo move to Los Angeles to find his fame and fortune. And Patrick’s great work in music.
I’m also beholden (see “Word to the Wise,” below) for my wealth. I’d be lying if I denied that. But when I take the time to count my blessings and think about what I’d trade in and what I’d keep (if fate decided I couldn’t have it all), it is easy to be reminded of what truly matters.
This Thanksgiving, let’s be thankful for those things. Our life. Our health. Our happiness. And the lives and health and happiness of those we love.[Ed. Note. Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]