Take me to your leader

Cheese, anyone? Photo by Erin J. Bernard

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a person exceptional.

I mean, really exceptional. How does a person become well regarded, special, distinct among the cloying and dull-witted masses? Is it something you’re born with? Something you’re selected for? Or is it something you simply create?

It’s a mysterious kind of calculus, and from all appearances, those who’ve cracked the code aren’t about to start talking.

Can you blame them for their reticence? In our culture, the baubles of admiration granted to those who enjoy social and financial success are many: presidential lounges in airports, uber-exclusive fitness complexes with waiting lists that stretch on for years, warm wet cloths for wiping down your tired eyes whenever you enter a room, cavortations with improbably attractive romantic partners. There is even a super-secret clubhouse at Disneyland known simply as “Club 33,” where you can drink booze and ride around on special train called the “Lily Belle.”

I definitely missed that train, and, lately, I’ve been digging deep into my past to try and figure out just why.

Just what are the early signs of greatness? How do you prove the sizeable girth of your figurative gonads before you’re old enough to schlep around fancy wallet cards and “Diplomatico” briefcases? At what point in youth do the exceptional begin to emerge from the fray?

I think I’ve got a half-cooked answer: it’s called “leadership class,” and make no mistake, it can be a more status-making than a Mensa admissions test, more coveted than a Rolex, more spirit crushing than a boardroom coup.


Back when I was in the trenches, leadership class was accessibly by invite only.

I have no idea what the criteria for selection was at my elementary school. Invitations went out to those among us, I suppose, whose comportment indicated their potential, some day, to lead something, or someone. It was for kids who picked up greasy napkins off the cafeteria floor and volunteered in the special ed classroom and could always be counted on to courier an essential message from the teacher to the front office without loitering at the drinking fountain or wandering into an in-progress art class.

These prize pupils got to read the morning announcements and sit on student council and study the democratic process and count the money in the student store’s cash box. They also got to leave school to do things like go on career shadows and have leadership retreats, where I imagine they must have eaten sweet, delicious things and talked about their dreams.

I was never nominated for leadership class. I don’t know precisely why, but I could hazard a few guesses: too shy. Too naughty. No initiative whatsoever. Seems distrustful of authority.

I can’t remember if such a society existed at my high school, but if it did, I was once again passed over for membership, likely on account of more of the same bad behavior, more mediocrity, more surliness.


Today’s leadership class is slightly more refined, more egalitarian. In fact, most incarnations are open to all students, though the vague stink of elitism persists.

In Mr. Lisi’s leadership class at Woodcliff Lake Middle School in Bergen County, N. J., for example, students meet in a mock “board room,” where, Lisi’s syllabus promises, they “will gain skill by examining individual leaders, their actions and choices and will study the effect the leader’s qualities and choices have on those who follow the leader.”

Throughout the 10-class course, students are exposed to a variety of leadership styles and encouraged to decide whether they have what it takes to become leaders themselves.

Implied here is a great measure of power, a sobering burden.

In his masters thesis, one DA Truss describes the process of developing a student leadership program at Como Lake Middle School in British Columbia. The program was initially made available to all students, Truss explains, but it was so successful that the school was forced to raise the entry bar a tad higher than its former here-and-appears-to-be-breathing requirement.

“We had just over two-hundred-ten Grade 8 students that year and one-hundred-ten of them applied to become student leaders,” Truss wrote. “It ended up being the last time that we allowed everyone who applied for leadership the opportunity to participate.”

Truss goes on to acknowledge that perhaps turning students away from a leadership course undermines the philosophy that every child might one day become a leader, but he hedges by asserting that it is difficult to provide “meaningful leadership opportunities to an exceedingly large group of students.”

Truss laments that he and the other course designers had become “victims of our own success.”

Again with the concept of burden! This seems to be a theme among the exceptional, and those tasked with grooming our youth for exceptionality.

OK. But let me just take a minute to remind the reading audience that laziness, too, can be a burden. Year after year, all of my report cards said the same thing: one, she’s smart. Two, she’s lazy.

And I was. Lazy, I mean. I did OK early on, but it was all downhill after my parents transferred me to the public school district in grade four.

I’d come home from my little Catholic school one day sobbing and completely traumatized by the story of the crucifixion.

“I have sinned,” I wailed, my hysteria bubbling up.

So I was scuttled off to the public elementary school, where the kids were slightly poorer and meaner and bigger and I didn’t have a friend in the world and everyone thought I was weird because I liked wearing mismatched socks.

I spent the next eight years spacing out, lost in thought, biding time.

I rarely did my homework. I shied away from any and all challenging assignments, except for this one shining moment in seventh grade when I won a school spelling contest and got to ride in the assistant principal’s car with two other students to the district competition, where I was summarily knocked out by the word “Awkward.” Irony not lost.

Mostly, though, I just sat in the back of my classes scribbling filthy notes to my friends or showing off my double-jointed thumbs to distractible seatmates. I’d always sort of been that way, but it got worse when I hit puberty.

In sixth grade, during library time, while my classmates were reading up on clipper ships and the exploits of Marco Polo, I was checking out books in other kids’ names just so I could gleefully observe them arguing the overdue notices with the wretched librarian, Ms. Claus, who still ranks shockingly high among my personal list of Most Terrible Human Beings I Have Ever Met. Once, a friend and I even hid a huge, stinky hunk of cheese in the back of the card catalog near Ms. Claus’s desk and waited for it to rot.

In junior high, I was suspended twice, once when the language arts teacher intercepted a note I’d written to a friend that depicted several students and teachers in various states of undress, and again for ripping up a bus seat and pulling out all the stuffing and then lying to the principal about it.

In high school, at break time, while others were prepping for algebra quizzes, I was busy cramming my hands into the vending machine’s little doors and yanking out mutilated (but FREE!) Danishes and cream cheese bagels.

After school, while others did community service or ran track, I was scrounging half-smoked cigarette butts from the dirt beneath the bus stop bench across the street from the high school.

Many moons later, I would become a teacher myself. And I’d grow to pity the legions of long-suffering instructors whom I’d either tortured mercilessly or merely ignored.

I was spit on by students.

Called fat and ugly and stupid by students.

Heckled and ignored and mocked by them.

It was like junior high all over again, only a paycheck came in the mail instead of a report card, and, because it was South Korea, I was permitted to administer light corporal punishment (in my defense, the only Korean method I actually enacted was forcing particularly naughty students to stand in the corner of the room with their arms in the air for 10 minutes at a stretch) or merely lock them outside in the hall until I felt like dealing with them.

But as I did battle with little monsters of my own, I also grew to pity my younger self, a weird kid who was painfully shy, who learned in adolescence to temper that shyness with the somehow more socially acceptable affliction of juvenile rage, who never got to go on a leadership retreat or give a speech to the student body or get taken out for frozen yogurt by the vice principal for picking up garbage from the flower beds.

In the end, despite my sloth and my ordinariness, I made it to college, where I remember thinking, for literally the FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE,  “I wonder what would happen if I actually tried.”

Seriously. I can still recall the day and even the moment during the first week of college when I had that actual thought.

It was a revelation, as simple as that. So I gave it a shot, and, miracle of miracles, I did quite well. Through four years of undergraduate work and on through two more years of grad school, I applied myself unceasingly to the amassing of knowledge. I became a straight-A student.

Why the turnaround? What impelled me to strive for exceptionality after years of mediocrity?

Sorry, but I really have no answers.

And what of all those pint-sized Leaders I knew so long ago?

I could list a few of them for you, and I could chronicle their trajectories. Many have had the anticipated success in their careers and personal lives, and I’d love to find out if they attribute any of it to those early opportunities they were given to wield power.

Others have shocked me with their abject failures to launch, and I’m equally curious as to why their stories ended in such a sad manner.

But seeing as I am, in fact, friends with a few from each camp on Facebook, I’ll hold my tongue and just say that the vast majority of my gold-star classmates have become pliable, pleasant, contributing members of society.

But so I have I! Mostly.


To be fair: You could probably say that for a good portion of the first 18 years of my life, I was all but demanding to be left to my unpleasantness, and that those around me had merely granted me my wish, and you’d probably be right.

But you could also argue – and I hope I have here, spiritedly – the opposite: the kids who are floundering need the attention and the positive affirmation perhaps more.

I guess, in some way, any kid’s motivation to excel is directed by forces far more powerful and random than mere mentorship or encouragement or little gold sticky stars.

Forces that are apt change like the weather – family troubles, often-rocky early friendships and relationships, a burgeoning sense of self that is inevitably carved from the gradual, terrible revelation that life is fundamentally unfair, that sometimes, even when you try hard, nobody notices, or you try too hard at the wrong thing, or you get too much credit for things you didn’t do or too little for things you did. That, in the end, who cares what you were told? This is the way the world actually works.

Here is what it took me till early adulthood figure out: one, I actually am smart. Two, my teachers were right: I am also lazy. Three, the second tends to cancel first one out, no matter how early or how late in the game you find yourself, no matter which train it is you are trying to ride.

That’s an important lesson, I suppose. You lag, you get left behind. Cause most of all, it’s nobody’s job to notice you, to take you in her arms and say, “You’re special. I believe in you. And, someday, you’ll be a leader!”

For the vast majority of us, after all, it simply will never be.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t a good number of not-so-exceptional kids out there – at Como Lake Middle School and Woodcliff Lake Middle School and my old elementary school and whichever other places in this world young people are at this very moment busily stealing books and ignoring their teachers and cramming hunks of rotten cheese into the crevices of library filing cabinets – who might be willing to believe it none-the-less.


2 thoughts on “Take me to your leader

  1. erinjbernard says:

    Thanks, Aaron! I have been following your blog, too, and I’m digging it so far. 🙂 Hope life is treating you well in France … Hard to believe it’s been like three years since we hung out. You are still one of my favoritest people, tho. Shotgunning beers behind Shakespeare’s Pizza and a mutual case of the blues … Ah, memories. Cher ami.

  2. Aaron says:

    i loved the personal detail. and you know i can definitely relate to it. it also made me think about my own students and what i should try to remember: the students at the back of the class might just be late bloomers. and without forgetting to mention, you are a really fun to read and have a tremendous vocabulary. wow!

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