LIFE LESSONS LEARNED AT W-L HIGH SCHOOL

[Photo taken in Santorini]

There are many reasons why people enjoy the films that they watch. Some find delight in the resemblance of an actor or actress to their own physical appearance or to someone in their inner circle.  Others like the musical score, while some pay attention to categories like costume design, makeup, visual effects, and, of course, acting.  

I, on the other hand, zero in on the storyline. I settle questions on whether a film is good or bad by relying on whether the plot is well developed, whether it deals with a theme that has universal appeal, or whether it engages our minds and our emotions.  

Watching the documentary “The Boys of ‘36” on Netflix recently created a groundswell of emotions in me. The documentary is based on Daniel James Brown’s book “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.” It recounts the story of nine blue-collar young men from the University of Washington, and how they took the nation and the rowing world by storm by winning the gold medal at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany. These boys not only overcame overwhelming psychological, physical, and economic hardships to beat the Ivy League teams of the East Coast, but they beat Adolf Hitler’s elite German rowers. Their story of beating the odds resonated with our nation that was stuck in the midst of the Great Depression.  

The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers from the American West, these boys took on and defeated the elites, the privileged, and, most of all, power.  They defeated the sons of bankers and senators rowing for prestigious eastern universities. They prevailed over the sons of British aristocrats rowing for Oxford and Cambridge. And in an extraordinary race in Berlin, they shocked the Aryan sons of the Nazi state by rowing for gold in front of Adolf Hitler. 

I identified immensely with the life story of one character in the film – Joe Rantz, who rowed the no. 7 spot in the 1936 eight-oared crew that won the Olympic gold medal. Losing his mother at age four, cast aside by his immediate family at an early age, and left to fend by himself, Joe overcame all odds by rising to glory and regaining his broken self-esteem in the end. But when the world seemed not to care, Joe was left with having to make a decision on whether to remain a victim or become a survivor. He chose the latter and in doing so, he found redemption. Naturally, the role that a key mentor played in his success story cannot be over emphasized. The University of Washington rowing coach Al Ulbrickson Sr. recognized Joe’s potential after seeing him practice on the high bar for the gymnastics team at Roosevelt High School, opened the doors of the university, and mentored him throughout his college days. He studied chemical engineering at the University of Washington and worked 35 years for Boeing. He died in 2007 at age 93. It’s amazing the difference that a well-placed and well-timed mentor can make in the lives of others. 

But the story pertaining to coxswain Bobby Moch also resonated deeply with me. At five foot seven and 119 pounds, Moch’s job was to steer the shell on a straight course at races. Unquestionably, the coxswain becomes the captain of a boat, as he must exert physical and psychological control over everything that goes on in the shell. At races, he knows when to start sprinting and when to slow down the rowing pace – all key decisions on winning or losing a race. After completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Washington, Moch entered law school and served as an assistant rowing coach at Washington until he accepted the head coach position at MIT in 1940. While holding down the MIT coach job for the next three years, he transferred to Harvard Law School and earned a JD degree.  By 1945, he passed both the Massachusetts and the Washington bar exams and led a highly successful legal career in Seattle as one of its most prominent attorneys.    

At five foot seven and half and 160 pounds, I am considered to be of average height among Cuban men. But when comparing myself to American men, I am considered short. While I had to fight many demons growing up, I learned that your height had nothing to do with your success in life. Perseverance, ability to take a good punch and get back up, belief in your abilities to succeed, and an unwavering faith that your God would always look after you are the qualities that pave a straight path to make your dreams come true.   

Now, to explain why this documentary touched me so deeply, I need to share my own experiences growing up. When I enrolled in Washington-Lee (W-L) High School in Arlington, Virginia, as a sophomore, in the summer of 1969, I was still finding my way around since leaving Communist Cuba in 1966. With much discipline and perseverance, I made great strides in learning the English language and achieving academic success. But I lacked the self-confidence to advance to the next level. When comparing myself to other students, I still thought that the odds were against me. Considering that my parents never fully assimilated to the American way of life because of their late-entry to the U.S. at age 42, the decisions on navigating the administrative process to apply to colleges, financing my education and transportation needs, maintaining a high grade-point-average, and getting high scores on the silly and totally unnecessary standardized test (SAT) were left entirely up to me. Moreover, I became disenchanted with the fact that I still spoke English with an accent – despite all the efforts that I had dedicated to this task.  

It was at this critical juncture that I met Morris Levin, a history teacher and famous coach of the boys’ W-L basketball team. While under his tutelage, he praised my writing and critical-thinking skills. He was surprised at my vast knowledge of the classics, the humanities, the arts, and the classical-music composers. When he wrote the course materials on the blackboard and I could not read them from my seat, he did not get angry with me. Instead, he moved my desk right next to the blackboard, and told me that I needed to see an eye-doctor to get prescription glasses. When I showed frustration at not having the height requirement to play basketball, Coach Levin consoled me by telling me that there were many different paths to success in life. When I aimed to speak the English language without a trace of an accent, Coach Levin told me to take pride in my writing skills. He further explained that everyone spoke with an accent depending on the geographic region or English-speaking country they grew up in. He said that what mattered was being able to communicate effectively with others. Coach Levin was among the first mentors to teach me the importance of the famous saying that “life is 10% of what happens and 90% of how we react to it.” 

Coach Levin groomed me for bigger challenges ahead by selecting me to attend multiple history seminars. Roger, a close friend, once asked me whether he was showing favoritism towards me. More than favoritism, I think that Coach Levin was taking pride in opening doors of opportunity to a recent political refugee who was unaware of his own potential. It was difficult to get noticed in a student-body of several thousands. I will forever be grateful to Coach Levin for giving me the confidence to lead a productive life, to not be just a self-effacing number on a social-security card but to fight back when I thought that I’d been misled, deceived, or abused, and to know that I held the keys to my own destiny. 

The second thing that resonated with me after watching the documentary was the importance of teamwork in achieving one’s goals in life. With the sole motivation in his coaching career to have a winning season, Coach Ulbrickson had the habit of yanking boys out of boats without providing an explanation. And, yet, one of the paramount duties of any coach of team sports is to instill the value of trust. With all the vicissitudes that Joe Rantz faced in his youth, he had to unlearn the bad habit of wanting to do everything on his own and in his own way. He had to learn that to be part of something bigger than himself, he needed to trust others. American author and speaker John Maxwell said it best with his saying that “one is too small a number to achieve greatness.” Both, Joe Rantz and Coach Ulbrickson had a lot to learn about teamwork before winning the ultimate and most prestigious price – the Olympics. 

Don Hume developed a reputation for being one of the best stroke oars in an eight-man crew. It is the stroke’s responsibility to establish the number of strokes per minute and rhythm of a crew – a critical part in winning a race. On the way to Berlin, Don got a bad cold. The day before the race, Don’s cold worsened, he suffered from a high fever and had lost about twelve pounds. With so much at stake at the Olympics, Coach Ulbrickson announced that he was going to remove Don from the line-up and bring in an alternate. The other teammates refused to leave Don behind and gave the coach an ultimatum that there would not be a race for the U.S. team without Don. They firmly believed in winning the final race for each other. Coach Ulbrickson decided that this was a case where he had to trust the instincts of the boys. He kept Don in the line-up, and the American team won the gold medal.  

Continuing with my own trajectory and feeling good about myself after all the pep-talks that Professor Levin gave me at W-L, I opted to join one of the lightweight crew teams. My high school rowing team had a stellar reputation after winning the Princess Elizabeth Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta in the Thames River, England, in 1964 and 1969. The training that we underwent was rigorous and grueling. Before the season started, we had to join a weight-lifting program during the winter months. During the spring and summer months, we would have to complete an intense exercise regiment, run five miles, go up and down (alternating between single and double-step routines) along what later became famous as the Exorcist Steps in Georgetown, and then row several miles along the Potomac River in all kinds of weather. Transportation arrangements were also complex — as the high-school was in Arlington, Virginia and the practices were held by the Thompson’s Boathouse near the Key Bridge, in Washington, DC. 

On the day before the final race during my second year on the rowing team, the rowing coach took me out of my boat and replaced me with an alternate. His logic – he thought that my replacement would bring about a victory. As fate would have it, they lost the race.  

All the lessons that I had learned about teamwork and about the coach’s role in developing character and camaraderie just dissipated in an instant. I watched the awards ceremony for the rowing team from the stands – as I refused to look past the humiliation that the coach had subjected me to. One of my teachers asked me why I had not stood together with the team to receive a certificate, and I just left her with her question unanswered. I was too hurt to give an answer to anyone. I did not return to the crew team during my senior year, and I never went back to pick up my certificate for my junior season. After the incident, I ran into the rowing coach in school (he was a biology teacher) on multiple occasions and looked him straight in the eye to relay some of the anger that I felt inside, but he acted like it was another happy day in the neighborhood.  

Much later, when I was a federal manager at the U.S. Department of Commerce, I ran into the individual who had replaced me on the boat on that fateful day back in my high-school days. I got the feeling that he remembered me. I recognized him immediately. We did not exchange a single word.  

Outside of my own immediate family, whom I’ve always loved deeply, it took me many, many years to learn to trust others. It was not until I became a supervisor and later a director in the federal workforce that I had no choice but to trust those who worked for me. It was either learn to accomplish things as a team or fail and face demotion or termination. Nevertheless, I admit that mastering this lesson brought me many rewards in life.  

There is no question that the lessons that I learned during my tenure at W-L helped me to become a man capable to deal more effectively with the good, the bad, and the ugly later in my life. And, for this, I will always be grateful. 

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