Finding Your Confidence

20 years and one month ago, I graduated from high school. I was probably your standard high school kid. Above average grades, below average athletic ability (though I tried), completely lacking in the self-confidence department. All in all, I tried to fit in as best I could and not to get too far on anyone’s radar. It would be years before I learned how to feel comfortable enough in my own skin, and that particular brand of confidence is what allows you to feel like you belong.

But I didn’t know that then. A few months back, someone created a Facebook group for those of us who graduated from Good Counsel High School in 1996. Though I specifically remember, upon graduation, that I knew and was on at least on civil terms with all 200 some-odd graduating seniors, it’s constantly amazing me to see some of these names pop up. Some appear in our various threads of discussions, and floods of memories come back. Some appear and – nothing. Literally nothing.

I felt bad for a while that I have completely erased the existence of these people from my consciousness, until I realized that they’ve probably done the same for me. Then I felt a bit sad, watching them post old photos of things like beach week and other events that I didn’t partake in, ultimately making me realize that I had spent so much time in high school just keeping my head down that I basically forgot to try and have a good time. Of course I really found myself in my 20s, and I’ve more than made up for it. Regrets, I have a few, but none vital. At least not where high school is concerned.

To quote a cliche, you can’t go home again. In the case of Good Counsel Class of 1996, that’s literally true. They tore down our rat-infested high school a few years back and built a brand new model out in the country. I’ve been by it a few times. It’s beautiful. It’s just not mine.

Though I left high school sans confidence, it is the very last time I stood in its halls that I had one of the very first memories of finding my confidence and voice. Like so many great things, it happened all at once. Then it took me years and perspective to understand what had happened and how, for me, it became a core memory – to borrow a reference from Pixar’s Inside Out.

Marge (not her real name) was my speech and debate coach. I know what you’re thinking – this guy claims he lacked all kinds of confidence and yet he was on the speech and debate team? Hypocritical, I know, and yet there it was. Freshman year, my guidance counselor took a special interest in me, and recommended the team as a way to help me find my confidence.

I have to pause here for a second. A snicker, a smirk – the irony here is so thick you’d need a bazooka to blast through it. Maybe you won’t appreciate this; maybe you had to be there. But stick with me now.

See, the thing about speech is, it’s ALL about confidence. You either had it, or maybe you could kinda sorta fake it. I didn’t have it, and have never been any good at faking anything.

Marge was highly revered by the other folks on the team. She spent time with the most talented members, her favorites, encouraging them in every aspect of their lives, even outside of speech. Decades later, people whom I care about and deeply respect still counted her as a great mentor and a steady, guiding influence in their lives.

For me, she was anything but. When it came to coaching, those of us who were out of favor received little to none. Attention? Advice? Forget about it. There wasn’t necessarily any rhyme or reason to being in her favor, except that she generally favored the talented over the untalented. Those whom she could mold, rather those whom she needed to build from the ground up.

Fair enough, but as a great man I know and from whom I imparted great life lessons often said: “There’s a reason why it says ‘Coach’ on your shirt.”

The story might end there. Except Marge often went out of her way to get into mine.

Junior year, I paired for a tournament with another out of favor member of the team (let’s call him Bob). Due to a variety of circumstances, this was the Metro Area Finals for our section, and the top four participants got to go to the National Tournament in Chicago. Anyway, Bob and I were put together kind of last minute, and couldn’t get any practice time. We also both understood that what little time we did get with Marge we got coaching counter to our own instincts. She essentially pushed us towards blandness, when the piece was about two larger than life personalities. So we practiced on our own. Essentially, in some ways, we worked in secret.

Bob and I drove each other to be better. We created our own confidence and ultimately, Marge was shocked when we advanced to Chicago. Marge was so surprised, in fact, that it was suggested by her to my parents that Bob and I resign our slot to a pair of under-performing seniors since “It would be their last chance”. Mind you, these seniors were fantastic people, but neither one had shown up for practice for weeks, undoubtedly distracted by any number of things that happen when you’re getting ready to graduate, and it showed in their performance. Neither had spent any time fundraising for the team, as both Bob and I had. Nor did they have parents who volunteered their weekends to judge for the team, as mine had. Yet we were out of favor, and these two seniors in question were part of the “core group”.

We didn’t let that didn’t happen though, and Bob and I competed at nationals in Chicago with the rest of the team who worked hard enough to qualify. We stuck to our own practice schedule, coming in 48th out of a couple hundred teams, and just missing the cut for the final round. Pretty impressive, in retrospect, especially when you consider that we basically did it on our own and that neither of us was what anyone would term a natural talent.

Bob didn’t return to speech after Chicago, and my opportunities within the team just diminished from there. Even further out of favor now, I was passed over for a leadership role despite being one of the top fundraisers for the squad and showing up to every major team event and then some. As a senior that fall, I was informed I’d be passed over for a prestigious tournament in favor of a freshman. Apparently, I had developed “an attitude problem” (probably true, frankly). So I just got up and left the room. I wouldn’t return for several months, participating in one last tournament before hanging it up. My only regret? Not letting it end when I walked out.

It was a harsh lesson: someone who is paid to help you, someone who is so revered by others as a great and positive influence in their lives essentially wanting so little to do with you as to actively deter your progress. Having to find your own way to make your own confidence. Terrific real-world lessons for sure, but I certainly don’t think that was Marge’s intent. To her, I was just irrelevant at best, a nuisance at worst.

But it was on that day, the last one I ever had in Good Counsel’s halls some six months after graduation, that I was able to find that confidence. See, for reasons passing understanding, GC wouldn’t pass our yearbooks until the following fall, and if you wanted yours, you had to come and get it. Given that it was my senior yearbook, I wanted it. I still have it; it’s the only old yearbook that still graces my shelves.

I got the book, and was taking an old shortcut back out to the parking lot when I walked straight into Marge. Her eyes darted around quickly looking for an escape, but none was available. With a deep sigh on her end, we attempted to make some small talk. I asked after that year’s team, that kind of thing.

This must have annoyed her, because I got a fairly short response. It went something kind of like this:

“So, Jack, what are you doing now? Going to community college?”

Our relationship in a microcosm.

I had grown six inches that fall semester of freshman year, so I can say with great confidence that I looked straight down on her, literally and figuratively, straight into her eyes and replied:

“No, Marge, I’m not. I’m at Syracuse University, on an academic scholarship.”

Her jaw dropped slightly, and eyes widened. The corner of my mouth pulled up in a smirk and, not breaking eye contact, I said goodbye and just pushed past her out to the parking lot. I never saw her again.

Only with time and perspective can we learn to appreciate these lessons, these defining moments. To me, finding my own confidence to succeed despite, maybe even TO spite, the one who was supposed to help me was one. Later, finding a high-road way of truly telling her to fuck off was another.

Some people just aren’t going to like you; it’s impossible to get along with everybody. Some people are going to disappoint you, it’s inevitable. Marge, a hero to so many, was a profoundly negative influence in my life. But that’s how it goes. It’s safe to say I’ve probably had more than my fair share of positive influences, before and since. I’ve been lucky, in that respect.

What it does make you appreciate are those who are the positive influences, those from whom you take life lessons about what it means to be a man (or a woman), what it means to be a good person, how to put in a good day’s work. How to be comfortable in your own skin.

It’s up to us to figure out how to take these influences, both positive and negative, and figure out how to make them work for us. No one else will do that for you.

Programming note: I’ve got a few packed weeks ahead of me, and I’d like to take what little time I have to write to try and get a new script going to film in the fall or winter. So I’m going to take a lengthy hiatus. Apologies to my fan (but Mom is on vacation, so good timing, right?). I might check in here and there, but in any event, the blog will be back on Monday, September 19. Have a great summer!