It was a scene right out of a pre-prime time PBS nature doc: a tropical forest floor somewhere off in Papua New Guinea or the sixth grade playground in Parsippany, NJ. Two leks, two species; Young males desperately seeking the attention of females.
Her name was Pam and she belonged to an elite class of Littleton Elementary School girls. As a new kid — worse still, as a new kid from the recently closed Mt. Tabor elementary on the wrong side of the tracks — I must have been somewhat exotic. Having scrapped with Tim Aldrich a few days earlier I may have been categorized as a loose and dangerous cannon. Jersey girls wearing Jordache definitely like bad boys.
I made my approach. She was surrounded by her elite friends. I can still see her curls. I can still feel my heart beating, pounding and the sensation of time warping and the gurgle of words tripping over my tongue and teeth.
I don’t recall the exact verbiage (probably, “Will you go out with me?”) but I’ll never forget the rejection and the ripple of giggles coursing through her friends. Ouch.
Fast forward two years. I’m in a leather chair sitting across from a priest. Somehow my relationship woes with Pam didn’t send me into a complete tailspin. I’ve made good grades and have passed tests and have garnered the respect and admiration of teachers (if not elite-level elementary school girls). But Delbarton High School wants more than good grades and admiration. Delbarton is a Catholic High School — I may say (channeling Professor Willard) an elite Catholic High School — in the wealthiest enclave of Northern New Jersey. Two — count ‘em — two of my cousins matriculated. I’m legacy material.
The squeak of leather echoed from the headmaster’s spacious office waking sleeping and dead priests. Monsignor McCalley’s weasel eyes saw right through me. There were no giggles, but there may as well have been. Rejected.
Advance one more time … eight years. I’m a COA student preparing to graduate in a few months. I had, if I may say so myself, “kicked ass” over the past four years (you can take the kid out of Jersey, but not the Jersey out of the kid). Yes, Chris Petersen gave me a B+ in statistics – I’m still contesting that. My recommendations were, I assume, pretty sharp. My experiences and essays were wild and meaningful enough to grab people’s attention.
My LSATs were low, but look at the whole picture for Christ’ sake! Ken Cline and I were at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, preparing for the inaugural Whitewater, Whitepaper class – my senior project and capstone experience. The letters came in. Vermont Law – no. Lewis and Clark – nope. Colorado University – negative. Three rejections. Three forceful blows to the gut, head and ego.
I thought about those sets of rejection all last night and, though I’m exhausted now, I feel much better having written them down. Writing exorcises. But I’d like those experiences to have utility. It’s the time of year when all kinds of decisions seem to be made; decisions that you no longer have any control over — graduate school applications, Watson Fellowships, possible jobs, etc.
It can be painful to look back at rejection, but it’s also kind of fun to think through the “what ifs.”
Pam? Her loss for sure. I mean, I would have been a great catch! But I can’t help but think that success on that day would have brought me into an elite class, at least in terms of popularity. I don’t think that the popularity would have done right by me.
Delbarton? According to my Dad, who likely gave the headmaster a good tongue-lashing after my rejection, I was not admitted to Delbarton because it was clear from my interview that I had no interest in going there. I don’t ever remember saying “I don’t want to go to Delbarton, I’d rather stay at my public school with all of my friends and less-than-elite girlfriends.” But I bet I shouted it in body language.
Law Schools? I blame those rejections on my very middle of the road LSATs. But if I was simply dying to study law I bet you I could have found a school to take me. Maybe those LSAT scores told a story of brain mechanics just not cut out for success in law school?
Choices are sometimes made for you by others (Pam). Sometimes you make covert choices (Delbarton). And still other times an option gets whittled down to choice that steers you in a completely different path. That was certainly the case with Law School, because along with the wad of rejection letters came a letter with much better news from none other than Thomas Watson Junior. The Watson Fellowship brought me to South America, which brought me to graduate school at Tulane, which brought me to my wife and, still later, kids, which brought me … to where I am today, writing to you while getting lost in the path of sea gulls as they drop mussels along the shores of Frenchman Bay.
So, I hope this doesn’t come across as me trying to be old and wise. But maybe it will bring some levity to the rejection you will all face at some point.
OK, that’s it for now, I’m off to friend Pam on Facebook.
SEA gulls?? We’re an environmental school on the coast of Maine.
Beautiful writing–thank you for keeping it up!
Thank you for sharing those lessons learned in such a thoughtful and interesting way.
Nantahala Outdoor Center?! That’s my neck of the woods! Which river? My best friend’s dad is the big cheese at the Chatooga outpost…sorry, I get excited when the world is small…