Wednesday, December 28, 2011

First Half Lookback: School Days

Almost time to close out the year I turned 40.  I've been thinking a little about how I define myself, and that could be a (very boring) series of posts.  It has always been very interesting to me how one's environment shapes the person one becomes.

When I had just started first grade, my parents made the executive decision to move our family out of Fayetteville, North Carolina, which had the disparaging nickname of "Fayette-nam."  The war was wrapping up, the troops were coming back, and it was a place of chaos and discouragement.  Our little neighborhood was nice enough, tucked just south of Ft. Bragg, and my father had a good job with the US Army Corps of Engineers, having served in the south of Vietnam before I was born.  He got an offer to work with Ft Belvoir in Northern Virginia, and a quick comparison of the NC school system and the Fairfax County offerings made it a fairly easy decision.
Market House in downtown Fayetteville.

I learned to read at age two.  Possibly I was more intelligent than an average toddler, but more likely it was my added advantage of a severe hearing disability:  I could not hear well enough to communicate reliably, so that gave me plenty of time and brainspace to learn written communication earlier than most.  My hearing was mostly corrected later, but in the interim I was a voracious reader, which made my preschool teachers thin-lipped as they taught my peers their alphabet.  My first-grade teacher in North Carolina said, "oh, that's wonderful!" when my mother met with her to tell her about our impending move.  Rather than participate in the curriculum in that room, I spent many hours each school day teaching a Vietnamese-American child in my class how to sound out letters in English.

So off we went to Northern Virginia.  The schools there were and are rigorous; packed with the children of the nation's overachievers.   I suddenly had classrooms full of intellectual peers and no more easy A's!  Elementary was full of multilingual, well-traveled and well-cultured classmates; I recall a theological discussion in fourth grade that hasn't been topped since.  Our house was zoned for me to attend Lake Braddock Secondary  from 7th grade through 12th grade.
They've upgraded it a good bit since I graduated in 1989.

Now I was part of a cast of thousands!  LB had around 5,000 students and I graduated with just over 1,000 of them.  My grades were fine; I took GT and AP courses when available, and in any other school, I would have perhaps been a top student.  But not at Lake Braddock.  You want to play soccer?  You'll be on Mia Hamm's team.  Rather try track?  Run fast, because Allen Johnson,  another Olympic gold medalist is already over that hurdle.  Maybe you'd rather pursue music.   Drummer Greg Eklund of Everclear is front-and-center.    Basketball, then?  You'll have to get a spot on Hubert Davis' team.   Also countless top attorneys, political analysts, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, all the members of The Dismemberment Plan, actors, literati and glitterati from and of all over the globe.   The parents were politicians, chiefs of staff, astronauts, war heroes, lobbyists, lawyers, writers, pundits.  And darned good parents.
Here's Allen.  Not just an Olympic gold medalist x2, but smart and a good guy as well.

These were amazing classmates.  We all sort of pushed each other to do and be better at everything, and because everyone else was doing it, it didn't seem like anyone was really getting ahead of anyone else.
That's me in the blonde hair, graduating right ahead of yet another NHS student.

Just a sliver of the Class of '89, on our way to bigger and better things.

So in a rather stark way, this explains my drive to be accomplished along with my lack of competitiveness about it.  To this day, I'm surprised to be good at anything.  I'm also no good at being a spectator -- I like to be part of the production.   It was a pleasure and a privilege to be part of a learning community that had such high standards, and those eminent people uncovered the drive in me to make this "second half" even better than the first.  Thank you, LB cast of thousands!

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