It was the spring of 2002, my senior year of high school, and I’d been invited to Wabash College for the Lilly Honor Scholarship weekend, along with thirty other guys, many of whom were a lot more accomplished than I. Imagine a room full of thirty Max Fischers fighting at a chance to go to Rushmore Academy, and that’ll give you a decent idea of the steep competition I was facing. Ten of us were going to win a full ride to the school, plus a stipend to travel abroad – valued at about $101,000. The other twenty would likely go home empty-handed.
To win the competition, there was no paper or computer exam. No essay. No tests. There was just an interview – a thirty minute interview with a few professors, alumni, members of the Board of Trustees, as well as the President and Dean of the college. The interview was the test – an opportunity to hear about us, but it wasn’t quite like a job interview or even a news interview. We were told that we’d be asked one serious question about a major current event but that the rest of the interview was to revolve around who we were, what we did and didn’t like, etc.
And of course, there was a lot of superstition around the interview. Rumors of rules we needed to follow if we wanted to win. “On the table, once you walk into the room,” an alumnus told me, “there will be a glass of water in a pitcher. Pour yourself a glass and drink the water. All of it.” Rumor was, historically, the winners of the scholarship were only those who finished the glass of water. I was instructed not to take any chances. Pour the water, drink it all just to be safe, or as my friend had put it, “Finish the damn glass.”
I remember when I walked into the room, I was a deer in headlights. There was a large, rectangular oak table. Around it sat men in business suits and bow ties, grey hair or balding. There was only one empty chair – at the head of the table – and it was mine. On a tray to the side was a pitcher of water and a pitcher of lemonade. My stomach churned: “Oh God, options.” I picked the water, poured it, and took a seat at the end of the table. I was nervous. I took some awkward sips. But I didn’t finish the water.
Then, there were a series of questions, and I had an answer for all of them. “Do you think Sept. 11 changed the world?” or “Why did you choose Wabash?” and “What do you think you want to study here?” At the time, I had my mind set to study biology, actually, or maybe art. I don’t quite remember which. But I remember a religion professor – the renowned Dr. David Blix – a short, stout man sitting next to me as he leaned back into his chair and dryly asked, “Tell us, Philip, what kind of music do you like?”
It seemed like a joke of a question. And it probably was. When I answered that I loved the Beatles, he followed it up by asking me what my favorite Beatles song was. And I went blank. And not like I took a few seconds to think on it and then found an answer, no. I mean Brick Tamland-level blank. I stumbled over words, laughed awkwardly, named like five or six great Beatles songs before finally settling on one. “Love” by John Lennon, I told them. Yeah – it’s not even a Beatles song. I walked out of the interview kicking myself. I immediately started listening to Beatles songs straight through – every single one of them. I was going to pick a favorite Beatles song, and for the rest of my life that was going to be my answer. I settled on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” and even bought a sitar. I should probably sell my sitar.
When I’ve told this story to friends in the past, I liked to say that my inability to answer that one simple question was why I didn’t win the scholarship. In truth, it probably had something to do with me telling the committee that I didn’t think September 11 changed the world. I didn’t actually believe that. Of course I thought September 11 changed the world. But I was so convinced that would be everybody’s answer that I decided I was going to try my hand at being different. Probably a bad decision in hindsight, though I think I did a half-decent job making the argument at the time. I told them that Americans had changed momentarily. September 11 had brought us together as a nation. Suddenly, everyone was a patriot with an American flag on his or her car, and we’d become all rallied up. Disaster, after all, unites people. But I told them that change was not to be long-lasting. I told them that those flags on the cars would fad with the sun, that people’s sense of unity would eventually corrode. I told them that it was an important, huge event that had altered us briefly, but people always get back to the ugly business being people in the end. Yeah: I was a cynical kid. And though I wasn’t entirely wrong, I didn’t quite have the foresight to quite understand what it means to change the world. And at this point, Iraq was still not on the table.
I guess there were two lessons I learned that spring of 2002. The first was, “always have an answer ready,” and the second was, “don’t assume being different makes you better.” As I’ve gotten older, the first lesson seems immature to me. A better answer to the Beatles song question would have been a simple: “I don’t know; they wrote so many great songs, the one I value today isn’t always the one I’m going to love tomorrow. We change with our music, and it also changes us.” There’s wisdom not only in not knowing but also in accepting how little you know and being a-okay with that.
The second lesson is one I still struggle with. I’ve always been someone, maybe partially because of having been adopted, who felt different and even wanted to stand out or apart. If I were in a room full of conservatives, I needed to be a liberal voice, and if I were in a room full of liberals, I needed temper that with a more conservative yearning. I loved being a devil’s advocate, because I felt I always learned more by being skeptical, but there was a cost. In a world with considerable deconstruction of every idea and ideology, I often found myself desperately looking for a way to build things back up again, to fix the world I’d deconstructed or helped deconstruct, only to discover I couldn’t do so without sitting around in a cesspool of contradictions I’d uncovered leaving me totally, existentially isolated from everything and everyone I once valued. I think these days, I’m busy doing the work of finally deciding what’s right for me and not just being, well, contrarian.
In the end, I did win a scholarship, though not the Lilly. I won the college’s Fine Arts Fellowship covering half tuition, actually. And even when I changed my mind about majoring in art history and pursued the religion route, the college let me keep the money. But in a way, that one interview four months before I started Wabash was my first real class at the college, and I haven’t forgotten that weekend at Wabash, the Lilly weekend, where a few first challenging questions that probably shouldn’t have been so difficult have given me a deep pause to reflect on what it means to be educated and keep educating myself for a lifetime.