Ambitious While Growing Up in Wayne County

This post is part of a small series of vignettes, which comprise an overview of some of the ideas and content of the book that I’m currently writing. This section reflects a portion of part III of my memoir, which focuses on ambition. Read more about the project here, my post on religion here, and my post on sexuality here.

When I was growing up in Wayne County, young people were presented with, and generally pursued ambitions within, three broad categories: athletics, trades, and academics. Culturally, the trades were accurately valued: they could provide a good living, and were well-respected. As a result, I am only primarily interested in athletics and academics, which are over- and under-valued, respectively. In Dear Wayne County, I discuss what it was like to be academically ambitious in this climate.

Ambition: a strong desire to do or achieve something, usually requiring hard work or determination


Imagine that you are back in high school (is…is that a jean jacket?)—or maybe some readers don’t have to imagine. If you participated on a sports team, you know its typical ethos in Wayne County. Everyone is encouraged to participate, to try to the best of their abilities, and to help their fellow teammates. Of course there are exceptions to this, but they prove the rule. If an individual is not performing well, their peers expect them to buck up for their own good as well as the good of the team. The general refrain is: individuals, through hard work, discover or develop talent that they never knew they had.

I lived out this reality in junior high and high school as a member of my high school’s cross country and track teams. The very first mile that I ran (ever) was in junior high track, and I required a little more than sixteen minutes to complete it. By the end of high school, my mile times had plunged to near five minutes. In the intervening years between those two very different times was a tremendous amount of hard work, mental toughness, and a positive attitude.

Regarding sports, I was a common product of Wayne County: I was not an athletic star, but I reached my personal capacities (which were still pretty good) and learned a lot about myself in the process. Running has stayed with me as a lifelong sport, with all its health and personal benefits, and I’m faster than ever. Cue the end credits?

No. And this isn’t an inspirational movie, but more of a documentary, anyway.

Before I continue, I would like to propose the opposite scenario to the one I just detailed above. Imagine if, instead of Wayne County’s typical enthusiasm and support for athletics—for everyone, or at least most—it was apathetic at best. Individuals know they probably should do a sport, because they have some value, but there’s not a strong community booster presence. If someone tries a sport briefly and isn’t that good, they, their adult mentors, and their surrounding peers just assume that they’re forever bad at it—no need to apply an extended period of hard work or try a different sport to actually assess the extent of their ability.

There is no push to discover or develop the hidden talents that were there all along, just a resignation that lasts a lifetime. In the rare event that someone shows absolute and superior ability in athletics, they are regarded as a unicorn—it’s just something in their blood, something they are, not something they’ve done. And, in the event that this individual achieves honors at the local, state, or national level, most people in the community don’t even hear about it. Hardly any of their high school peers even know about it.

This is clearly not the situation on the ground in Wayne County. Its athletics departments are always well stocked with participants (albeit unevenly across sports) and complete with a supportive booster culture. Unfortunately, this is the exact state of things in the academic realm. Individuals are not encouraged by their peers to work hard to determine the extent of their abilities, and, in fact, the opposite occurs. Poor academic performance is accepted with apathy for the most part, despite the fact that many students would see the same manner of improvement in academics as they regularly realize in athletics—if only some of the methodology of the latter were applied to the former. If I had treated my athletics like most treat their academics, I would likely still be a wheezy asthmatic with low confidence in my physical prowess, and I would certainly be less healthy.

Socrates once said:

No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.

I agree with him, but I apply the same kind of thinking to someone’s mind. In fact, I consider the mind to be more important. Give a strong man a boulder, and he can move it. Give a man of the mind a long enough lever and a fulcrum on which to place it, and he can move the entire world (according to Archimedes, anyway). Although I find beauty and tremendous pleasure in the pursuit of physical fitness, it is secondary to the fundamental happiness and advantage that cultivating my intellect brings.

The upshot of this culture was that I, as one academically inclined, was forced to find my own way along an unnecessarily and productivity-hemorrhagingly difficult road. Although I had the support of many dedicated and fantastic individuals, there was no institutional support for the atypical academic arrangements I sought in the pursuit of my own goals—in fact, there not only institutional apathy, but antipathy. Dear Wayne County describes the nature of the great people who helped me and the institutions that hindered me, and it is my goal to forge better institutions for the future.

It is not the primary point of Dear Wayne County to identify the causes of the lack of support for academics relative to athletics, but to merely describe what it was like to exist within that culture. Identifying such causes is a different enterprise altogether. I have my ideas, but much more work is required to elaborate.


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