A surprise knock, and the world was at my door
I slowly pushed down on the clutch of the battered and beat up truck, patiently listening for the engine to bite so that I could move the vehicle forward. On the seat next to me, my instructor calmly encouraged me, speaking with the soft British lilt to which I had grown accustomed over the summer.
“Wait for it,” he said. “Wait for it,” elongating the first word of each sentence to stress it’s importance and delivering his directions in a cadence that was, by now, both foreign and familiar to me.
My patience paid off. I heard the engine change tones and my foot pressed the pedal. The truck moved only a few feet, but I felt a surge of joy. I had just driven a manual transmission for the first time. This American who had only operated an automatic shift was driving a stick. But what truly made the moment special was that I was being taught by my British friend, Nathan.
Even with all my senses focused on moving the car, I understood the depth of the experience. The driving lesson was a metaphor for how my narrow world had broadened this summer in the most unexpected and surprising way.
I had taken a summer life-guarding position at a camp in Ashby, Mass., out of fear that I’d get no other job offers. It was 40 minutes away—a town of 2,500 in the sticks–and I had no car. It meant I would have to sleep there and oversee a cabin filled with campers at night and watch young swimmers by day. As the school year ended and summer approached I dreaded the commitment.
I arrived wishing I could leave. It was a typical New England camp in every respect except for the staff. The counselors came from all over the world, including England, Germany, Australia, Poland, Colombia, and Scotland. At first, I avoided the foreign-born staff members, feeling uncomfortable and awkward around them. But gradually as the weeks wore on, something changed inside me. As staff members developed friendships, the group gelled and bonded in a way I had never experienced before. Gradually, I felt like I had a small family of peers around me.
I began to look forward to my nights off. Even mundane things, like going to get coffee, became exciting because none of the international staff had ever before seen a Dunkin’ Donuts. Wal-Mart and fast food restaurants stunned them. For the first time in my life I was seeing my very familiar world through the eyes of someone else. It was an incredible experience because it made me look at American culture objectively. I came to realize how small my scope in Massachusetts was in comparison to the world’s vastness.
What really excited me was glimpsing far off places through the eyes of my new friends. I was fascinated by mundane things. I learned from Nathan that in England almost everyone drives manual transmission cars. From Max, I learned that television in Germany doesn’t have commercials until the end of an episode. Rachel introduced me to a great band from Scotland, Mumford & Sons.
I loved to have conversations with the foreign staff members about their homes, world events, sports, and what they thought of the United States. I thought when I took the summer job that I would be stuck in the middle of nowhere.
Instead, I discovered the world came to me.
Always an Eagle Scout
Inside the meeting room of South Church where I’d spent almost every Thursday night for the past six years, I held my breath as the whole troop stood by me awaiting a decision. What hung in the balance was the culmination of years of commitment and hard work since joining my Boy Scout troop at age 12.
I had just undergone a rigorous interview with four board members in a room down the hall. The troop of about 15 boys had been working on campsite skills that evening. The boys were now milling about, waiting for the Scout Master, Mr. Sheppard, to summon me back to the board room. I returned to my Scout leaders to see their smiles and handshakes. I was an Eagle Scout.
You would think that I’d feel relieved at this moment, but I felt no different than the moment before they told me.
You see, there was a time, years earlier, when many thought this day would never come. That’s because I was the odd-man-out in the troop. As a sixth-grader, I was like a wound-up top that never stopped moving, annoying everyone around me and making the other boys avoid me. I was so vivacious that no one took the time to see the sensitive and caring person I was inside—the one that I would one day grow into.
It was a long journey from an energetic adolescent to the mature man I am today. With every merit badge earned, I learned a valuable lesson about how to conduct my life. For example, the Personal Management merit badge taught me how to manage a budget. The Family Life badge gave me the skills to pitch in and help my parents run a household. Two trips to West Point Military Academy for Scout jamborees exposed me to cadets who were studying to be US Military officers, and made think about a military career.
These experiences molded and shaped me. But the most significant experience came from completing my Eagle Project, during which I recorded the oral histories of eight war veterans from World War II, Korea, and Viet Nam. As I listened to their stories, I learned the meaning of self-sacrifice.
The project took 140 hours—longer than a typical Eagle Project, but while I was working on it, I was not thinking about the time I was spending or even whether I would make Eagle if I completed the project. My only focus was on preserving the history of these noble citizens.
That is when I understood why I felt no different the night my Scout leaders named me an Eagle Scout. It was because what was inside of me—a commitment to public service and a willingness to sacrifice—had been there all along.
I didn’t feel any different because I wasn’t different.
Even in those lonely days of my younger years, when everyone else was writing me off, I had always been an Eagle Scout.