Thursday, December 04, 2008


When I was a sophomore in high school, my guidance counselor called me into his office one day and said, "There's a program I think you'd like, but you need to take some tests to get into it. Want to try?" Being young and naive, I said, "Sure!" with no hesitation. I don't remember even asking much about what the program was or what the tests involved. We scheduled some times over the next couple of weeks and I'd show up and he'd put me through what I thought were some pretty silly tests.

I remember one involved looking at a design on a card and using some bi-colored blocks to make the design. My counselor timed me during this activity (and others) and carefully marked my times on an official-looking document. There were math problems, word problems, math-word problems (ugh, hate those, especially when they're timed) and essays. Vocabulary, memorization, multiple-guess, you name it. Having no idea, really, what we were testing for, or what was at stake, I wasn't too nervous and just tried to do my best.

A few months later, after I had all but forgotten about the goofy tests, my counselor called me back to his office. "Some of the tests you took were IQ tests, and you scored remarkably well." He showed me a bell curve and about where I fell on it, but he wouldn't tell me my actual score. He just said, "You're over XXX." (No, I'm not telling you, either.) (Let's just say I'm purty durned smart.)

Then he told me that the tests and essays were part of my application for a program called Missouri Scholars Academy, and that I had been accepted. I was to attend the program at the University of Missouri-Columbia for three weeks in the middle of the next summer. Uh. Okay. Cool beans?

I had no idea what to expect when I showed up that summer, but boy, did I get a surprise. MSA was a life-changing experience for me. Life. Changing. I was at the point where I was already sick of the cliques and snobbery at my high school and old enough to realize that, given the chance, I could actually shape people's opinions of me instead of being forced to follow what shallow-minded people had determined was my "label." Off I went to MSA, and for three weeks, I was me. Truly, wholely, absolutely, undeniably me. I wasn't afraid to be my nerdy self because I was in a whole crowd of nerds. Nerds in all different kinds of ways: music nerds and poetry nerds and protester nerds and engineery name it, there were nerds there. We reveled in our nerdness, our uniqueness, and we celebrated ourselves and each other for it.

On the first night, a big group of nervous nerds gathered for the opening reception. They had brought in a motivational speaker who taught us that, at any point in our lives really, we deserved a standing ovation. A Standing O, it was called. All we should have to do was ask for it. So, he asked, who wants to go first? There was some muted laughter and a few rumbles. The speaker waited patiently. Finally, one timid-looking boy gingerly stood up and declared, "I deserve a standing ovation!" The rest of us leapt to our feet, applauding, and the tradition was born. For the next three weeks, people would randomly stand up and announce, "I deserve a standing O" and they would get it. Can you imagine how remarkable that feels? (Some of us did it more than once.) In the dining hall, in class, hell, just walking across campus, you'd hear someone say it (sometimes yell it), and you'd drop what you were doing and gladly give it. It was affirmation of the highest order, and it was fantastic. You didn't have to say why you deserved one, or prove it in anyway. You didn't need to. We were all happy to give it for the simple reason that you were a fellow human being, and that was worth celebrating. What an absolutely great concept. I wish it was something we could pass to the rest of the world, but I don't see it happening any time soon.

Anyway, this morning I received an e-mail from one of my fellow MSA alum (who unkindly pointed out that we were in the class of 1989, which seems like an awfully long time ago). The MSA program is celebrating its silver anniversary this summer and someone is planning a ton of great events. I took a few minutes and completed the requested survey, which asked all sorts of interesting questions like, "What are your three greatest accomplishments?" Damn, all these years later and MSA is still getting me to think. Clicking through the MSA site, and looking over the list of fellow alums, memories came flooding back and I felt a huge crush of gratitude for the program, my fellow nerds (those with me in '89, those who came before me, and those who continue to come after me), the talented people who conceived and then established the MSA program, and my high school counselor, who apparently saw a little spark of something he thought was worth pursuing.

Just a little jaunt down memory lane tonight, thanks to an e-mail blast from the past. I love the little twists and turns of life.

(By the way, the title refers to yet another session from MSA with another powerful speaker, who taught us to sing in unison: Boomba...HEY! Boomba...HEY! Boomba HEY HEY HEY!" I don't remember the premise behind it, but I remember having a boatload of fun while singing it.)


Blogger Karl said...

I just got to your blog post via Ted Tarkow. To a "T" you described my experience in 1987 (yes, I'm even older) and the experience of almost every one of the MSAers I worked with throughout the 1990s.

Boomba never gets old, and we could all use a standing ovation at times (not to mention Tai So).

3:05 PM  

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