Saturday, June 11, 2016

Water Under The Bridge


I was supposed to graduate yesterday.  Instead, I’m sitting in a makeshift classroom on the seventh floor of the library for summer school.  Turns out I needed to take one more class.  But, to tell that story, I have to take you back to the beginning.  As I hope you’ll soon see, context is everything.
For the longest time I’ve been telling people I should have been an English major…instead, four years (and three weeks) later, I’m going to graduate with a BBA in Strategy & Management Consulting (whatever that is).  Regardless of what my diploma has printed on it, I’m a writer—always have been, always will be.  Being a writer, everything comes back to perspective.  We’re taught empathy at such a young age—our propensity to see the perspective of our peers is a defining characteristic of human beings.  Yet, for quite some time I felt like everyone around me had forgotten.  I sensed a lack of empathy in this world—a lack of perspective holding us back. 
I don’t want to live in a world where a Tinder profile is enough information to warrant a first date, but we do.  I don’t want to live in a world where a two-digit GPA is a better indicator of success than a two-page letter of recommendation, but we do.  I don’t want to live in a world where saving a dollar is more of a priority than saving the environment, but alas, I’m afraid we do.  The difficulty is that there’s no beginner’s guide for finding perspective.  I’m a faithful believer in the notion that ignorance is bliss—you never have to hear the answers to the questions you never ask.  The flip side of that, however, is that you’ll never truly find what you’re looking for if you’re not willing to get a little bit lost along the way.  Wayne Gretzky famously said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”  I’ve certainly taken my fair share of shots, but I think Gretzky’s insight is incomplete without the addition of one of my dad’s favorite lines, “Shooters keep shooting.”
What if Michael Jordan hung up his sneakers for good, after missing the cut for his Junior Varsity team?  The fact is that MJ was able to persevere before anyone had even the slightest notion of the person he would eventually become.  He believed in himself, even when nobody else did.  I like to believe that when you follow your passions, perspective finds you.  This story isn’t about Michael Jordan, though—this story is about me.  More specifically this is the story of how I finally found my perspective.


My freshman year was a roller coaster.  For quite some time, most people knew me as that kid with the blog…and yes, I used to write a blog, until quite recently—but, we’ll get back to that.  Perhaps more importantly, I decided to pledge a fraternity during my second semester at Emory, a decision which would redefine my entire collegiate experience.
It’s safe to say I fell in love with Greek life.  I rushed not knowing a thing about Phi Delta Theta, but after a week of partying I was glad to abandon my automatic bid as an AEPi legacy[1] and forge my own path on Emory’s campus.  Phi Delta Theta was an eclectic group of guys, with my pledge class including members from Santa Monica all the way to New Delhi and Taipei.  At the time I was initiated, there were exactly 100 brothers in the house.
Before we were initiated, though, we had to pledge.  Freshman year, the administration sent dozens of emails encouraging young men and women to join fraternities and sororities.  What they never tell students, however, is that every fraternity hazes.  There are varying degrees of nastiness when it comes to forcing 18-year-olds to binge drink and complete seemingly meaningless tasks.  Nevertheless, to claim that the fraternities on campus do not haze and to turn a blind eye to the pledging process until that is no longer possible seems to be the University’s only approach to reforming Greek Life.
            Most fraternity brothers are sworn to a lifetime of secrecy and discretion, but since my indefinite suspension from Phi Delta Theta during the summer of 2013, I see no reason to censor my recollection of the events as they took place during the best semester I’d never want to have again.


Four days after I officially joined Phi Delt, I hopped in a Toyota SUV with a couple of upperclassmen, and manned the wheel all seven hours to New Orleans, LA.  That year more than 20 brothers (and one pledge) made the trip southwest to honor a longstanding tradition—Mardi Gras.  They called me Mardi pledge the rest of the year.
Did we get hazed?  Sure, but what the media seems to miss about the hazing phenomenon is that we readily agreed to it.  Rolling Stone magazine even listed us as the eighth most out of control fraternity in the country.  Blaine McEvoy writes:
Recent infractions at this Atlanta house run the gamut from force-feeding pledges "unusual amounts" of items "not typical for eating" to having them sleep on a basement floor in just their boxers. But it's the requirement that new members participate in a Chuck Palahniuk-style "fight club" that clocks this brotherhood in at number eight.[2]

One brother was a Yankees fan and after he found out I was from Baltimore, he used to always make me do pushups in honor of my own childhood baseball hero.  I’d chant, “One for Cal Ripken Jr., two for Cal Ripken Jr…thirty for Cal Ripken Jr.,” as I banged out set after set, resisting the urge to laugh hysterically.  You get the idea.  The reality is that for the most part, we drank beer, we ate mayonnaise, and yes, one night we boxed each other with gloves, mouth guards and a referee.  Yet, suddenly, when the newly hired Dean of Students was quoted in the Emory Wheel saying that Phi Delt had organized a fight club, the news went viral overnight.
            Not everyone sided with the school, though.  Total Frat Move’s Veronica Rukh responded to the Rolling Stone article writing, “The horror! The only other thing that’s bringing them national attention is for having their new members participate in a pledge fight club.  This is the kind of punishment you get for creativity.”[3]  The Dean did not find our traditions creative.  Rather, she sought to make an example out of Phi Delt in an ongoing effort to crack down on hazing in fraternities.


It could be argued that my negligence during pledging was one of the primary reasons I ended up in the business school, because, on the night that I was scheduled to register for classes, I missed my enrollment time on opus.  Managerial Accounting was one of the only classes still available for rising sophomores so I decided to add it to my schedule.  My “A” in that class would prove to be both my first and last “A” in a b-school core, and it didn’t even count towards my major GPA.  Isn’t it funny how those things work?
That’s what my grades said—meanwhile, this was about the point in time when I realized how trivial grades were to me—I wanted to learn challenging concepts, not meaningless buzzwords.  I, simply, didn’t see the merit in memorizing definitions just to beat the curve.  It wasn’t that I was less motivated than my peers, it was that I had different priorities.
I think the biggest difference between me and most of my classmates was always that I saw education as a collaborative opportunity—not a competitive series of tasks.  I loathed the curve, and the arbitrary hierarchy it imposed on every student’s experience in the classroom.  I actively participated in all of my classes but, when it came to exams, I continually struggled for motivation.  One time someone told me “C’s get degrees.”  I think he meant it as a joke—but, somehow, along the way, that joke became a mantra.  My GPA may have suffered for it, but my education certainly did not.


I’ll always remember junior year as the year of the internship.  The pressure to land a top tier job in The City—especially at Goizueta—was overwhelming.  I didn’t find one until the week before graduation.  By the end of my streak of failed interviews at equally uninteresting corporations, I was 90% sure I had become a socialist, with little hope for personal happiness in my future.  Then, by some incredible stroke of luck, I found Baltimore’s Promise.
With me, the team grew from three to four, as we worked together to bring the public, private, and nonprofit sectors together in Baltimore to unite around the cause of raising healthy, educated youth from cradle to career.  I don’t know if you’ve seen Baltimore on the news recently; needless to say, there are a lot of problems yet to be solved.  Nevertheless, here I joined a team working around the clock to affect change on an institutional level—practicing the same mantras that I had been preaching for years.  This summer was the first time the notion of perspective really sank in and wouldn’t go away.  Which brings us to the present.


This year has seen its up and downs for me.  I still have no idea what I’m doing next year.  The only constant in my life for the past five years has been my blog—Student Parking Only.  At the beginning of the semester I swore, at all costs, to keep writing until I made it to 100,000 page views.  It was a goal I’d been working towards for as long as I could remember, and it was only fitting that I would make it before I graduated and wasn’t a student anymore.
That’s when I realized I had to stop.  I had to put an end to the closest thing I had to my life’s work—the blog.  Why’d I give up when I was so close?  Because, writing shouldn’t be about the page views—just like learning shouldn’t be about the grade.  Writing is an art—a process—that requires astute attention to detail and deliberation.  I stopped studying for mid-terms because I wasn’t learning anymore—I was memorizing.  Now, I wasn’t even writing blog posts anymore; I was, simply, typing—it went against everything I believed in.  So, that very night I decided to end Student Parking Only, once and for all.  The blog wasn’t perfect—it couldn’t be—it followed my life, with all its ups and downs, ebbs and flows.  If I never made it to 100,000, so be it—I didn’t care anymore.
What happened the next morning, moved me in a way that I had never been moved before.  A handful of devoted fans began sending in guest posts, lamenting the end of the blog—my blog.  It turns out, some of the same people who I had assumed were my biggest enemies, were actually my biggest fans.  It was my roommate, who sent the one that brought me to tears:
He told me I would never understand him, that none really could.
But I think people should try to understand, they really should.
Life’s about being you, and nobody else.
And for better or for worse, that’s what the kid felt.
He never took on a persona that was not strictly him,
He placed less focus on the losses, but more focus on the wins.
He would do anything for anyone, no matter the personal burdens they brought,
Because Jake Max is that kind of guy, like him or not.

That’s just his, perspective, though—and, you’re entitled to yours.  My humble perspective is that it never really mattered that I wasn’t an English major.  I spent far too long trying to figure out how to be happy, when the answer was right in front of my face the whole time.  I knew grades weren’t enough.  I knew money wasn’t enough.  By the end of it, not even the page views were enough—it didn’t matter if I ever made it to 100,000 or not.  All I needed was a little change in perspective.  Mine came out of nowhere like a slap across the face.
The Friday before graduation, I received an email from the dean regrettably informing me that I had failed intro to Computer Science and would not be graduating on time.  I still got to walk across the stage in my cap and gown, but the diploma they handed me was blank.  I pretended to smile as my parents and sister sat paralyzed in the crowd.  What should have been one of my proudest moments quickly became one of my darkest, overwhelmed by guilt and embarrassment.
I needed to take one more class, so naturally I picked “Writing History: Memoir.”  I’ve been talking about writing a memoir for years.  In fact, one of my favorite lines has always been, “Do it for the memoir.”  Sure, I did a lot of crazy shit along the way, but it wasn’t until I failed CompSci that it all started to come together.  My life’s certainly had its ups and downs, but I don’t regret a single moment.  I went 22 years without failing.  Turns out I’m not invincible—no one is.  More important than how we fail, though, is how we recover.  I finally had something worth writing about, so I wrote it.  That’s what writers do.  Now, it’s just water under the bridge.

[1] My father was Alpha Epsilon Pi and my mother was Alpha Epsilon Phi, both at Emory.
[2] Blaine McEvoy, “The Most Out-of-Control Fraternities in America,” Rolling Stone (August 28, 2013).
[3]Veronica Rukh. 2013. "Rolling Stone Creates Completely Bogus List Of The Ten Worst Fraternities In America. Total Frat Move. August.