It’s December, 1983, and I’m lying in my bed, crying. I’m in 8th grade, 13 years old, and my mom has just tucked me in to my cozy twin bed, which fits me just right at 4 foot 10 and 90 pounds. I’m a good student, the starting goalie on my hockey team, popular amongst my peers at a small, suburban middle school outside of Chicago. Life is good. So why am I crying? Well, my mother, having recently shut my door and left the room, is now in a shouting match with my father down the hall. I’d heard my parents argue before, about the typical things that arise when you’re trying to raise a family of five and make ends meet. Those arguments definitely happen. But this wasn’t one of those. No, they’re arguing because of me. Faced with the prospect of attending the local public high school--population just over 5,000--I am terrified. Something in my 13-year-old brain is telling me that I will get swallowed up, all 90 pounds of me, in a freshman class of 1,300 students. So I have begged my mom to send me away to boarding school, a thousand miles away from home. I love my parents, I love my brothers, I love my cat, but something in my gut is telling me that I’ve got to get out. So my mom has just shared this insane idea with my dad, and he is NOT having it. And then, in the midst of overhearing my parents arguing, I hear my father shout this: “He’s a quitter, he’s always been a quitter!” So...I’m crying because that hurts. It hurts coming from someone I know loves me more than anyone in the world. But it hurts mostly because it’s true. When the coach made me quarterback of my 6th grade football team and I got sacked 12 times in the first game, did I pick myself up and dust myself off and get back right back out there, like they tell you to? No, I quit. When I got sick of playing competitive tennis, I quit; when the French Horn got too difficult, I quit. And now this, I was quitting high school before it even began. Or worse yet, my parents agree to send me away to school, and I end up quitting that, too. It was only later in life that I realized that my dad didn’t want to send me away to boarding school because he really had no idea where he was going to come up with the money to pay for it. But it was only much later in life that I understood why he really didn’t want to send me away: because he just could not imagine letting me go, not his youngest child, not yet.
Three months later, it’s the middle of March, 1984, and I’ve somehow managed to convince my parents to let me apply to three boarding schools—mostly, I think, because they were pretty sure I wouldn’t get in to any of them. Admission decisions arrive in the mail: Philips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts: rejected. Philips Academy, Exeter, New Hampshire: rejected. The Hotchkiss School, Lakeville, Connecticut: wait list. OK, so maybe this wasn’t meant to be, after all. Fine, I’ll go to my local high school, get beaten up every day, and try to make the best of it. Maybe it won’t be so bad.
It’s a Friday in early June, and I’m getting ready for one of my last days of Middle School. My mom is waiting in the car for me and I’m literally half way out the door, when the phone rings. By now I’ve pretty much forgotten about boarding school, and I’m just looking forward to graduation and summer. I run into the kitchen and pick up the phone. “Hello?” “Hi, may I speak to Adam?” “Speaking.” “Hi, Adam, this is Mr. Mark from Hotchkiss; I’ve got good news for you. If you’re still interested, we’ve got a spot for you in next year’s freshman class.” “Uhhhhhhh...thank you.” Awkward silence. “Do you want to talk to your parents about it and get back to me in a day or two?” “Uhhhhhhh...yes, please.”
September, 1984. I’m 14 years old, and my parents have just moved me in to my dorm room. I’ll be living on the second floor with 19 other freshman boys, sharing one bathroom. It takes very little time for me to realize that my roommate and I have absolutely nothing in common—and only slightly less time to realize that he is a habitual loud snorer, and an occasionally violent sleepwalker. After skating through Middle School with good grades earned through minimal effort, I’m now scrambling to organize my life around the academic demands of an intense boarding school, while trying to figure out how to do my own laundry, who to sit with at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and how to get my roommate to stop snoring without suffocating him to death. I had never played soccer before, but I decide to go out for the soccer team, and I make the thirds team...because everyone makes the thirds team. No one ever told me that there are special cleats made just for soccer, so I wear my baseball cleats, and I end up with a horrible case of shin splints, which relegates me to the bench for the season. When ice hockey season comes around, this “star” goalie from small-town suburbia becomes...the back-up goalie on the thirds hockey team. And on top of all of this, I feel like an alien at this school. Even worse, I feel invisible at this school. I have come from a place where everyone was like me, more or less, and where everyone liked me--more or less--to a place where it seemed that there was no one like me, and no one really even noticed my existence. So, I’ve traded the comforts of home and family and friends for this abyss of uncertainty and discomfort and loneliness. But I can’t just leave, I can’t just quit, obviously, so I throw myself into my school work, I try some new things, I try to make some friends—but mostly I just get through it, one day at a time.
Fast-forward 2 years. It’s the fall of my junior year. I’m doing well in school, I have a few good friends, I appear to be thriving. My dad is a complete convert—having very reluctantly sent me away and having figured out a way to finance it, he now thinks my boarding school experience is the greatest thing in the world. He’s got all the Hotchkiss gear, the “proud parent” bumper sticker, the whole thing. So, here I am, at the start of junior year...and I’m in my dorm room, I’m in my bed, and I’m crying. Why am I crying this time? I’m crying because I’m imagining the conversation I’m about to have with my dad, the conversation in which I tell him that I feel lost here and I want to come home. I’ve tried, I’ve really, really tried, and, yes, it’s gotten better, but I just feel exhausted, tired of trying to keep up, tired of trying to fit in. And what is resounding in my head and making me cry just thinking about picking up the phone? “He’s a quitter—he’s always been a quitter.”
Well, I never did have that conversation with my dad. I didn’t leave school, I found a way to muddle through the hard times, and I can even say that, in many ways, those last two years of high school shaped my adult life as much as any other two-year stretch before or since--and most importantly, I learned in a very real, first-hand, smack-you-in-the face kind of way that everything changes.
“It’s always darkest before the dawn,” “Good things come to those who wait,” “This, too, shall, pass,” “If at first you don’t succeed,” “Time heals all wounds,” “Tomorrow’s another day.” These cliches about change and patience and perseverance and optimism are familiar to us all. Perhaps you, like I, in a time of crisis or despair, have heard these phrases uttered by a well-meaning friend or family member. And perhaps you, like I, in those challenging moments, have found those attempts at consolation to be hollow, unwelcome, or even just plain annoying. What I have come to realize, though, is that these “cliches” are not just empty words manufactured by the Hallmark company, but pearls of wisdom born from untold lifetimes of common human experience. And I confess, I do still get annoyed when someone tries to console me with these unsolicited intrusions into my own misery. But the mere contemplation of the words—and the very simple but very profound truth underneath the words—has often proven to be a source of genuine comfort and hope in my most difficult and darkest hours.
You never step in the same river twice. The only thing that is constant is change. But rarely does the change you’re looking for happen when and how you want it to…but it happens. If you woke up this morning so miserable that you felt like you couldn’t even get out of bed and face the day, the fact is that there’s nothing I or anyone else can say or do to make it better in that moment, but please, please believe me, things will change. Carry on, persevere. The only thing that is constant is change. It will get better.