It’s no secret that high school has its challenges. But this isn’t an article about school reform, youth bullying, or public education’s origins in an antiquated industrial revolution model. This happens to be a single success story from my own public high school experience that has served me well in my career post-high school, post-undergrad, and even post-graduate school.
“Whiteboards and dry erase markers weren’t the only innovation my junior year.”
The year was 1995. It was my junior year in high school and my school district appeared to be on the cusp of converting all its black boards (which were always green) to whiteboards with dry erase markers. It would be several more years before I would fully appreciate the virtues of whiteboards over slate and chalk. (I now carry my own retractable dry erase marker into every meeting I attend.) But whiteboards and dry erase markers weren’t the only innovation my junior year.
“The word I learned that day seemed to disrupt the juvenile cadence with which high schoolers grow accustomed in order to survive those adolescent years.”
Mrs. Ashe, distant relative to the famous American tennis player Arthur Ashe, was my junior year English teacher. She was short and feisty and struck a decent balance between being a friend and commanding respect among her students. On a particular ordinary day while learning about the mechanics of poetry we were assigned the seemingly mundane task of writing our own prose. I couldn’t avoid writing a more rhythmic structure found in traditional poetry with the exception of one word I learned that day. The word I learned that day seemed to disrupt the juvenile cadence with which high schoolers grow accustomed in order to survive those adolescent years.
Eclectic. Presumably in the English language for centuries, the word eclectic was a new word and new world for my shallow high school mind. In the poem I wrote that day in that dusty green chalk board classroom of a now demolished high school building I wrote “We must be eclectic amongst ourselves.” It was the only line in my poem that didn’t rhyme. That singular non-rhythmic poetic line was really a metaphor for the dissonance that new word created inside of me. And it was in the learning of the word eclectic that I found new meaning to my existence. I didn’t have all the answers; I didn’t even know all the questions to life. But in the word eclectic I discovered others did.
“Questioning authority isn’t bad, but not listening is.”
Teenage years are notorious for the presumption of knowing everything, questioning everything, and trying desperately not to do anything your parents tell you is good to do. Questioning authority isn’t bad, but not listening is. My saving grace during those last few years of adolescence was the word eclectic. And what has made me excel in my professional career since high school has also been that word. It has protected me from insularity within communities, biases within group think, and bureaucracy and silos that develop from organizations cataclysmically designed to avoid systemic thinking.
“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” – Mark Twain
Eclecticism has helped me discover the good ideas in others much sooner than Mark Twain discovered them in his father. Being eclectic as a life goal has made me appreciate diversity of opinion, theories, and solutions to current world problems. It has made me follow more people on social media I disagree with than those with which I agree. Eclecticism has made dialog in meetings I lead much more interesting. And to borrow a quote from Margaret Heffernan “conflict is frequent because candor is safe” in any of the circles of which I might have influence.
High school, and adolescence in general, is messed up for more reasons than I can count, but I can trace many of the good decisions I have made over the years to learning the word eclectic 22 years ago as an awkward teenager in Mrs. Ashe’s English class.