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Friday, August 20, 2010

Wake Me Up When September Ends

It’s that time of year again. Back to school time. It’s a time of high hopes and expectations…and often overwhelming anxiety and fear. One thing students should realize is this: nobody has it all figured out. I used to think I had it all figured out. Sooner or later we all figure out how much we don’t know.

For me it took until my second day at West Point in 1987. At 5 a.m. I was standing at attention in a hallway, with “Top Gun” music playing on the speakers. For an institution whose unofficial motto is “BEAT NAVY” it was ironic that West Point would have pre-workout motivational music from a movie about Navy fighter pilots. I had no idea what lay in store for me that day, but as I stood at attention I noticed a poster on the opposite wall that read, “Fall seven times. Get up eight.” It was meant to be motivational. I just found it confusing. It did motivate me to fail math that semester.

I was supposed to be one of the nation’s finest. That was who went to West Point, they told me. But everything there my first year made me feel…not so fine. I called everyone ‘Sir’-everyone, usually screaming at the top of my lungs. Army officers, cadets, tourists, janitors, landscapers, squirrels-it didn’t matter. The problem was that a small percentage of the cadets were “Ma’ams”. I learned they do not like being called “Sir”. Now, this was when regulations required short hair for females. Some recognized that stress and fatigue prevented proper gender identification. But some others would get really ornery-the ones that were not completely secure in their Ma’amhood. One of them roared, “DO I LOOK LIKE A SIR TO YOU?!?” That question was sometimes impossible to answer since lying was forbidden by the Cadet Honor Code. There was, however, a provision in the Code for something called social tact, which we could employ to avoid insulting someone. For instance, if I ever found myself at a General’s house and his wife cooked a horrendous meal, then asked me how I liked it, I was to find something positive about a small detail, perhaps one of the side dishes. Instantly recalling that bit of helpful knowledge, I stood ramrod straight, looked this female cadet in the eye and shouted at the top of my lungs, “MA’AM THE CARROTS WERE DELICIOUS!” I then sprinted away as fast as I could, leaving her as bewildered as I was when I read the “Fall Seven Times” sign.

One day I fell asleep in class. Most days, actually. I woke up to the instructor, an Army Captain, roaring, “Maybe Keenan knows the answer!” I looked around the class, thinking maybe he meant a different Keenan. My sleeping subconscious was still wrestling with the “Fall Seven Times” riddle. “Sir…the answer is 7.” No, eight! “I mean 8. X=8…Sir.” I waited. The Captain merely stared, dumbstruck. Had I gotten it right? In deep slumber had I processed the problem and solved it? His glare did not waver. He shook his head in disbelief. Was I right? Was this the day it all turned around for me? The Captain spoke, barely audible: “Keenan, this is World History.” I should mention that he probably detested me from day one. He gave one of those welcome-to-class speeches the first day of school, inviting all world history questions. “Go ahead. Ask me anything. There’s no such thing as a stupid question. The only dumb one is the one you don’t ask!” He was clearly unfamiliar with my work.

I proved him wrong. Perhaps it was fatigue, or some residual smart aleck that twelve years of Catholic school had not purged. The best thing for me would be to keep my head down and mouth shut. I picked option B. I raised my hand and asked, “Sir, what did Marco Polo and his friends play when they went in the pool?” Clearly, I had a lot of figuring out yet to do.

The message for students starting the year is, take heart if you don’t think you have it figured out yet. No one does. That’s what makes life interesting. You find out what you’re made of when you have to figure it out for yourself. As my first West Point roommate, a giant Texan, used to say: “If life throws you a curveball, make lemonade. And you can’t make lemonade without breaking a few eggs.” He didn’t quite have it figured out yet either.