When I was 16, I made a decision for a life reboot. I chose to go to military school!
As a 16 year old, I was living a pretty normal life for a suburban kid being raised in the ’60s. I was being raised in a middle class neighborhood in northern New Jersey, going to public high school, had good friends, played school sports and the clarinet in the school band, etc.
However, there was a major wrinkle, I was really struggling in my school work. I studied but kept getting average grades at best and this was driving my parents (who were wonderful people) absolutely crazy. After all, their first born child had a path to follow and that included going to college, which was a key to a successful vocation.
All I know was I was feeling like a major disappointment to my parents, family, and teachers and actually started believing I “just didn’t have it.” The stress was driving me batty and I was feeling anxious whenever the topic of school came up. I also felt like all the good things I did were meaningless; I now believed it was all about academics and that without good grades I was going to get nowhere in my life.
At this time, a school friend of mine who was a very good musician brought up a topic that he initially raised a year earlier. Was I interested in auditioning for a full scholarship to Valley Forge Military Academy? Valley Forge had what was considered to be one of the finest youth symphonic and marching bands in the country and he had auditioned twice in an effort to get in. I gave him the same answer I did a year earlier…MILITARY SCHOOL? NO FREAKIN’ WAY!
However, weeks after this discussion and regardless of how I felt about “military schools,” I began thinking maybe I needed a drastic change in my life, a big disruption, to give myself a chance to start over and get off my academic sinking ship. I really was feeling down in the dumps.
Without telling my parents, I told my friend if his contact could arrange an audition I would go for it. His parents, believing my parents were aware of my decision, help arrange the audition. A little later, I told my parents about my decision and that while I had less than 100% certainty about military school, I thought this was a chance from me to take a different path and give myself a new start. I was ixnay on the fact that they were driving me absolutely nuts!
Needless to say, they were both startled about my decision to possibility attend a military school and equally alarmed that a 16-year-old believed he needed to start a chunk of his life over. That said, they supported my choice to go through with the audition.
I don’t believe they thought I would go to military school, even if I passed the audition. After all, how many kids choose to go to the type of school parents usually threaten to send you to if you don’t behave?
I practiced a ton on my audition pieces and on a very snowy Sunday in December 1968, we drove 100 miles to Wayne, PA and arrived on time for my 11:00 audition. Two hours later, after playing better than I have ever played in my life, Colonel D. Keith Feltham, Valley Forge’s renowned bandmaster, offered me a full scholarship to attend the school the following August.
I remember the moment like it was yesterday. The school campus was just beautiful, especially in the snow, majestic buildings, sprawling campus, cadets confidently walking around; this was a world I had no understanding of, yet I felt it was a special place. This excitement was short lived because Colonel Feltham told us that before my scholarship was finalized I had to take an academic test. My heart sank…my nemesis, academics, might take this opportunity away from me.
News flash…I passed, albeit by the slimiest of margins. And, the school recommended I do supervised extra work when school began. Fine with me…I HAD A CHANCE TO START OVER!
In August 1969, I entered Valley Forge Military Academy as one of 13 plebes in the all scholarship Band Company. And, after the requisite haircut, my reboot began!
Band Company was special, 52 guys all from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. The Band had a national recognized reputation for music excellence, the school’s strongest military performance, and were holders of the school academic trophy for 22 straight years. Every cadet, and especially plebes, were expected to carry on these traditions.
As plebes, we were under the gun 24/7 for 8 months, with constant harassment from the “old men” whose mission it was to discipline and teach you the ropes throughout your plebe year. But, when it came to study time the harassing stopped and it was more about getting the academic job done.
As promised, Valley Forge’s after school academic support was there for me. Teachers made themselves available and I took full advantage of this. However, I found my greatest resource to be my fellow Band cadets. There seemed to always be someone around to help if you needed it. This esprit de corps did wonders for my confidence and performance. For the first time in years I saw my school work effort translate to grades.
The 1969/70 academic year became the academic turning point in my life. To my great surprise, in my first grading period I made the Dean’s List. I could finally see the fruits of my effort paying off. I was part of something much bigger than me and I took pride in being part of group and individual achievement. My academic and cadet performance steadily grew at Valley Forge. I graduated with school honors at all levels, which prepared me for what was to come in the next phase of my personal journey.
At 16, I took the fork in the road that led me to Valley Forge Military Academy and it was the best, albeit a tad drastic, decision I could have ever made in my young life.
I learned that limiting beliefs are just that…limiting. And, although once established they can always raise their ugly head, I learned if I addressed them head on I could develop a more important belief…one that says, I am the author of my own story!
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