The caboose

The class orator at my daughter’s graduation last year used preschool lines as an analogy that both leading and pushing from the caboose made equal impact along the track of life. The trick, she suggested, was being able to pick out a competent engine heading in your same direction.

It got me thinking. The fact that my last name began with an “S” usually predetermined my alphabetical place toward the end of the line. And, being on the smaller side, I would have had to jump up and down to get my teachers’ attention to be picked to lead. That wasn’t my style. Anyway, if the truth be known, I liked hiding out somewhere within the middle, or even better, bringing up the rear.

The temptation to wander off onto the playground or into some obscure office and the anonymity offered made it, well, comfortable being last. I innately preferred the headiness of putting space between me and the person directly in front of me, having no one notice me, adventuring off if I so chose and being astray even if it meant I would be scolded and sent up somewhere within the middle for the remainder of the week.

As caboose, I knew my real job was to push the line forward and if I liked or respected the leader, I gladly did it. Having had the experience, I was keen enough to anticipate when kids might want to step out of line, and had gained enough of their respect from challenging the rules that they usually listened to me when I caught them. The leaders whom I liked, in turn, liked me back because they could count on me to do this annoying work.

I often chose not to follow the teachers’ lead to a designated spot, however. Stubborn, immature and naive, I wanted to get there in my own way. I’m not going to lie, my insubordination and immaturity made it rough and lonely at times. At various junctures in my life, this disdain for authority and my free-veering resulted in time-wasting distractions that led to emotional and professional setbacks. In many ways, I am a late bloomer.

Lucky for me, it was my family who walked a well worn path of good decision-making that, out of pure gratitude and a sense of responsibility, I mostly followed. I followed my father into athletics as a young child and, later, the older boys and girls who were accomplished in my chosen sports. I watched my dad go to work every morning, read newspapers every evening and, at night, talk back to Walter Cronkite or laugh at Jackie Gleason. I later studied talk show hosts like Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin who asked interesting people intriguing questions. Once my mom said I could write, I listened to two teachers and a few close friends who said so, too. I began emulating a highly educated pen pal from the big city of New York and paying attention to the turbulent antiwar and racially charged revolutions happening around me at the time. I studied Time magazine and The New York Times’ articles to learn what constituted a good lead, the main body and endings. I followed my parents and many ancestors who went to college, worked hard and kept their commitments to each other; my brother who took a year abroad to learn another language; my roommate who studied diligently; and my mom, again, who never stopped sending me clippings of newspaper columnists whose voices I could recognize. It helped a lot when the editor of the college newspaper gave me a chance and my first corporate boss let me organize her desk and rewrite her copy.

Through no effort of my own, (the doctor even used forceps), I am the beneficiary of a family whom for four generations made wise decisions more often than not about their education, work and money, marriage and children, and mentors and friends. I am well aware that not everyone has the same family example.

So my seasoned advice to graduates would be as my daughter’s class speaker somehow already knew: Instead of forging ahead in your body armor of a well-deserved education, step away from any sense of entitlement and independence you may feel. Be humble. Whether it be college, trade school, a job or early marriage or parenting, look around for friends and colleagues who are going in your same direction. Someone in your station is doing what you truly aspire to do in the same passionate way that you feel compelled to do it. Pick them out. Be an observant, respectful and reliable follower.

When you see others jumping in and out of your line, have the fortitude to give them a hand now and then. Likewise, let others pull you back whenever you lolly about in an unproductive place. When necessary, push forward. You will find yourself in a stronger more rewarding line, moving along the right path more often than not.

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