I am a child of the Reagan Revolution. I was 10 years old when the “Great Communicator” entered the White House and, as a result, I became fascinated with politics, government and American history, but especially the presidency itself. And, as I read more and learned more about the men who had held the office I found myself increasingly pulled toward Richard Nixon. I found him utterly fascinating, a tragic character at a tragic time in our country’s history, possessing both a brilliant mind and a deeply flawed character. Nixon and those in his inner circle were redefining the American political landscape in ways they couldn’t even imagine.
One morning during the fall of my senior year of high school I was having breakfast and watching the morning news when I heard that Henry Kissinger was scheduled to speak that very morning at a conference taking place just 10 minutes from my home. I turned to my mom and said “I’m not going to school this morning. I’m going to hear Henry Kissinger.” And so I did.
I put on a tie, found my way to the conference site and discovered that Dr. Kissinger was the keynote speaker for the annual meeting of the National Radio Broadcasters Association, or something like that. I walked into the foyer of the ballroom into a sea of VERY SERIOUS ADULTS gathering over coffee and continental breakfast. At that moment my youthful boldness wore off and I was scared. A child impostor, living on the edge, sure to be discovered and tossed out on my ear. And so I did what anyone would do in this situation; I had a danish. Desperate to fit in, I choked it down and headed towards the ballroom entrance. Once inside, I made what turned out to be both a crucial and fortuitous error: I walked to the very far side of the room, leaving myself no escape.
I took a seat in the back, appreciating that the ballroom was dimly lit, the proceedings were about to begin. My confidence began to return – I had made it. I survived the gauntlet of the crowd and was poised to hear a very significant man talk about very significant issues. What I didn’t count on was what happened next: as I’m settling in, the emcee of the session proceeds to the lectern to welcome everyone and then says some version of “AS WE DO EVERY YEAR, WE’RE GOING TO KICK OFF OUR MEETING BY HAVING EVERYONE INTRODUCE THEMSELVES AND TELL US WHAT RADIO STATION YOU’RE FROM!.” I panicked. (There was a very brief moment in which I entertained the idea of introducing myself as “David, from WKRP in Cincinnati” but I saw no sense in hastening my doom.) As they got started with the introductions I got the hell out of that room, bursting into the foyer only to run smack dab into Dr. Kissinger himself.
Well, more accurately, I ran into Dr. Kissinger’s security detail on whose faces I quickly read, not exactly fear, but serious annoyance that I was even in their presence. As they subdued me (that’s a gratuitous word choice but go with me on this) all I could say was “But, I just wanted to meet Dr. Kissinger!” at which point the good Dr. turned around, assessed that I wasn’t exactly a Khrushchev or a Mao, and called off his dogs. I explained that I was a local student interested in hearing him speak and he said a few kind words in that well-known growl, signed an autograph and was on his way.
I never did hear him speak. I was too freaked out by that point to go back in. But, I did get to meet him and that was well beyond my imagination over Cheerios and the morning news.
What happened when I got back to school is what I have been thinking about a lot lately. You can imagine my gleeful confidence at being able to report to my classmates what I had accomplished. I was especially excited to go to my government class and share this with my teacher, sure that I would be hailed for my boldness in pursuit of a “real” education. This is not what happened. In fact, I remember his reaction as being more annoyed than anything else. Annoyed that I had skipped school and annoyed that I was disrupting his class.
What a colossal, massive miss. Here I was, truly engaged in my own learning, taking ownership for it, acting on my passion for the subject matter, only to be met with annoyance. In retrospect, that just sucks.
In Seth Godin’s new book, Linchpin, he talks about how the school system, rather than being a catalyst for creative problem solving and leadership skill development, more often than not is just in the way. Sadly, he’s right. And I can’t help but ask, what of our organizations? In so many ways they just pick up where the schools leave off: Fit in this way. Do it this way. Don’t embarrass yourself. Stand out just enough to make a name for yourself but not enough to really share your passion. Don’t make us look bad by really caring about your work. Strive for a “met expectations” and be happy with it. You’re a cog. That’s just the way it is.
Well, that’s not the way it is. Not anymore. And, the sooner we figure that out – really figure it out – the better.
I can’t help but wonder how things might have been different if that teacher had accurately read my enthusiasm and gone out of his way to nurture, challenge and support it. What new paths would have opened up? What spark would have become a flame? As with so many of life twists and turns I am left to question, what might have been?
© 2010 David Berry