This story is dedicated to Dan Kerr, a master blogger, friend, and educator.
I was at a baby shower recently in the East Coast section of Singapore for an Indian friend of mine. It was a pleasant evening, and the event took place in an old colonial house built by a British mercantile family in the 1800s. Sitting back to enjoy a paper plate of tandoori chicken and basmati rice, I began to reflect on how my life got me to this point, when a sharply dressed fellow in a white untucked shirt and expensive looking jeans started to chat. “You are the only white person in the room,” he said, interrupting my reflection. “Yes, I know,” I said. “But it’s okay, I’m used to it.” He laughed.
After a few minutes, he began telling me his story. (I think it was after I told him I was a Principal). In social situations, I usually make up some career so that people don’t feel the need to describe their personal opinions, experiences with school, or in this case, pain. Being a helicopter pilot, large animal vet, underwater welder, and sparkling water tester has served me well on other occasions. But not today, when I foolishly decided to tell him what I did.
So, while I stared at my half eaten tandoori, trying to politely listen, he proceeded to embark on a detailed account of his demise. “It all started when I made it to the top of the class,” he said. “That ruined me.”
“Oh?” I asked, genuinely curious. “Yes, it was all too easy. I made the best scores in one of the best schools in India, got a scholarship, made it to New York to work for Price Waterhouse.”
“Yeah?” I said, waiting for the tragic ending. He didn’t disappoint.
“I couldn’t take the failure. It was a really high pressure job and they threw a lot of stuff at me that I was expected to do and I just completely botched it. I started drinking too much, things got worse, and I tried to kill myself at one point.”
I looked over at a group of the Indian women, giggling together as they played one of those shower games with paper cutouts, and tried to maintain my focus on the conversation that was so out of context. He looked at me with pleading eyes. I think I said something like “I don’t know what to say, man.” After he finished his story about how he lost his job but was trying to get his life back in order and had stopped drinking, I asked him what he thought of the whole thing looking back.
“I don’t know man. Maybe it was that I got into this pattern at school that if I just worked hard I’d get the grades and everything seemed to work out. It all just kept moving forward.”
“Linear progression,” I said, smiling with familiarity at the phenomenon. “What?”
“Linear progression. It’s a school affliction. We talk about things like embracing failure and overcoming obstacles, but the margin of error is so small and the setbacks so short lived (especially when angry parents complain), that it’s hardly a pin prick on your arm. You don’t even notice it.”
“Yeah, I guess,” he said. “That was it. I never had a challenge I couldn’t overcome with a little extra work. Then this job really kicked my ass and I thought I was worthless.”
“You’re not worthless,” I told him. “You just went to school. I was going to tell you I was a helicopter pilot but I’m glad we talked. It will be okay,” I said. “I’m glad you stopped drinking and I hope you realize that you have something important to contribute to the world.”
He smiled. “Yeah. Linear progression.”
I put my hand on his knee, took a bite out of the chicken, and got up to rejoin the festivities.