Column: A life launched from the back of the class

By MIKE SKINNER

For the Valley News

Published: 03-06-2023 9:51 AM

I sat around a campfire a few years ago with six new friends, who shared their interesting backgrounds with one other. One of them asked what I had done for a living, and I sheepishly gave some highlights. Another then commented how smart I must be to have done so many things in my lifetime.

“I know about smart,” I said, pointing to my wife, trying to divert attention. “I married a high school valedictorian.” Her eyes narrowed. She was mortified to be identified as a smarty-pants.

The group quietly waited for my answer to how smart I must have been.

I’m not sure why, but I finally decided to reveal to these virtual strangers my true academic standing in high school. I had never done that before.

I continued, “I admit I didn’t graduate No. 1, No. 2, or No. 3 in my class. But guess where I graduated?”

“Number four!” They all shouted, swallowing the hook, line and sinker.

After I told them I graduated number 635 out of a class of 650 (this was a big school), they shifted in their chairs, gazed at the fire pit, and starting talking to each other about the weather.

As I found out later, their reaction was not an embarrassment for me; rather, they sensed I had deceived them to hide my real accomplishments. They doubted I had been such a dunce in high school.

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I chose The Non-Valedictorian as the title of my column. Were it not for one or two sympathetic high school teachers who likely didn’t want me in their classrooms again the next year, I was almost a non-graduate non-Valedictorian. And that would have been too long a title.

Because of my academic background, writing a column for the Valley News will be a little intimidating. I’m thinking that this community is a hotbed of smart people who got top grades in school and attained advanced degrees and who only buy their groceries at a Co-op.

I will ponder questions that perhaps bright people may not think to ask as they consider big questions of their lives.

For example, I sometimes wonder why there is neither a hardware store nor a pharmacy in downtown Lebanon, or why I always have so much trouble knowing the difference between Hartland and Hartford. Or have to be reminded about the aesthetic (I remember that word from my community college days) reason for the big concrete balls on the bridge across the Connecticut River from Norwich to Hanover.

There is an Irish word I happened upon several decades ago, which I relate to as I write: spalpeen. Its meanings can run from rascal, scamp, imp (which I call OK spalpeens) to scoundrel, rogue, or good-for-nothings (bad spalpeens). I bring that word up now because I want the reader to know I avoid writing about people I see as rogues, scoundrels or good-for-nothings.

Which leaves politics and some politicians, as an example, as topics I dodge because, otherwise, I become prone to name-calling, making me a bad spalpeen.

I once got promoted to a position requiring me to work with politicians for the first time in my career. There were U.S. and state legislators and senators, mayors, selectboard members, and sheriffs, as well as their aides and hangers-on.

I turned to a friend of mine, Steve, who had marinated in politics and politicians his entire professional life, for guidance.

“Don’t worry, Mike,” he said with a straight face. “Just keep this in mind: Politics is the art of making friends.”

Friendships with politicians seem as weird a concept as a kale stir-fry with Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce.

For example, I attended a fete for a state senator to show my friendly support and to collect some now-long-forgotten award. He called me to the dais, and on my way up, he said to the crowd:

“Here is Mike Skinner, who, for the first time, is not coming forward with his hospital hat in hand looking for state money.”

He did not exactly practice the art of making friends. Because I have chosen not to talk about the behaviors of some politicians here, I hope to avoid writing what I ended up name-calling him at the time: a little worm.

The friends I introduced at the beginning of this essay eventually came around that I was not a rogue, good-for-nothing, or scoundrel by telling fibs about my academic background. By the end of the evening, and after a couple of glasses of wine, my true nature and lack of taking high school seriously became more apparent and then they welcomed me into the tribe.

Mike Skinner is a writer who lives in Lebanon. Skinner was a medic in the U.S. Army, a hospital executive and a college educator. He is the author of My Life as a Non-Valedictorian, available through Amazon and Kindle.

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