Bear with me, Church of the Churchless visitors. This personal story concludes with a churchless moral.
Idly watching a high school teen flick on Comedy Central, “She’s All That,” while stairmastering this afternoon, I was taken aback when a character spoke some lines that could have been said by me at his age—with some slight modifications.
I heard Zack, a senior, tell Laney (in so many words): “My dad wants me to go to Dartmouth. He always has. It’s just been expected of me. He’s always saying, ‘Zack, you’ve got to make up your mind about college.’ But I know what he means. I’m supposed to choose Dartmouth.”
Me too. My father graduated from Dartmouth. He never was a part of my life, though, so that isn’t where the pressure came from. It was my grandfather who was dead set on me going to his alma mater, Dartmouth, and its associated Tuck Business School.
Grandpa Lewis was a New England businessman. He was a founder of the Lewis-Shepherd Company, which made electric lift trucks (a.k.a. “materials handling systems”). His eldest son, Jack, was his heir apparent. I was the oldest male in the next generation, my mother being Jack’s sister and Grandpa Lewis’ daughter.
So it was taken for granted that I’d eventually head up the family business. That was simply how things were supposed to be. Unquestioned. When I became a teenager, I remember that I started getting Dartmouth sweatshirts for Christmas from my grandfather. Every year. Whoopee. Just what I didn’t want.
When college began to loom closer, I learned more about Dartmouth. A men’s school. In New Hampshire. Ergo, no girls. And cold. Just what I didn’t want. I was a sunny California boy.
It wasn’t difficult for me to decide that there was no way I was going to Dartmouth. The idea of dedicating my life to selling electric lift trucks didn’t thrill me either. I wanted to major in journalism. I applied to U.S.C. and was accepted.
The tough part was telling my family what I wanted to do; my mother, uncle, grandfather—they all were zeroed in on me attending frigid girl-free Dartmouth. I can’t recall how I broke the news. I do remember that it wasn’t received well. A lot of Dartmouth momentum had built up over the years. My family had my future all planned out for me. Problem was, it wasn’t the future I was drawn toward.
Happily, my mother understood. Maybe she never was all that keen on me being the Lewis-Shepherd businessman of the next generation. She was an intellectual, a truth-seeker. I’m sure there is truth in electric lift trucks, but it wasn’t the sort that my philosophical mind was attracted to. My mother could relate to that.
I ended up going to San Jose State College, about as distant from Dartmouth (in many ways) as you could get. I was admitted to an experimental program called Tutorials in Letters and Sciences. Each semester of my freshman and sophomore years was spent in a single twelve unit “class,” plus three units of electives.
The class was all small group seminar discussion. No more than ten students and a professor. Lots of reading. Lots of writing. Lots of thinking. Lots of discussion. The idea was to take a single period of history, such as the early Greeks or the Renaissance, and simultaneously study the literature, art, science, politics, and whatnot of the time.
It was great. I loved it. Wasn’t Dartmouth. Was just what I needed.
And what I wouldn’t have experienced if I’d marched in step with family tradition. Which gets me, finally, to my churchless theme. My family wasn’t religious. Business was what they had faith in, understandably. It had provided a good life for my grandfather, uncle, and other family members. I was supposed to believe in business too.
I couldn’t. I wasn’t cut out to be a traditional businessman. That wasn’t my way, my calling, my karma, my destiny, whatever you want to call it. I feel fortunate that I wasn’t also pressured to follow a certain religion, as so many children are. Probably the pressure to believe in a certain fashion about God is more powerful than the pressure to believe in a certain fashion about how best to make money.
Make your own choices. Don’t blindly follow in your family’s footsteps. That’s my simple moral. There’s a complication, though.
It’s easy—almost inevitable, in fact—to become your own “ancestor” as you grow older. You’re seemingly emancipated from external family pressure, but now you’re generating your own traditions that you feel beholden to.
“I’ve always had these beliefs about God. I’ve always worshipped in this way. I need to honor my heritage.”
No, you don’t. You can change your mind. You can make an abrupt change of direction. You can head in any spiritual direction. You can start a new tradition at any moment.
My mother taught me that when she fully supported my non-Dartmouth college choice. Happy Mother’s Day, wherever or however you are. You’re still living in me and your other child, Carol Ann. We’re independent, just like you were. Your gift to us keeps on giving.