Before that weekend at the Sun Valley Lodge, I was more familiar with the appointments of a Motel 6 than a fancy hotel. But when I opened the door to my room and saw a staircase going to a second floor loft....in my room??? Seriously, I could have idled away the days with room service and bubble baths and considered it a conference well spent. I’m not kidding, I think I shot an entire roll of film of the bathroom alone.
I was attending the American Academy of Achievement’s Golden Plate Awards and annual summit, a gathering of preeminent leaders and innovators in literature, science, technology, the arts, sports -- any field, you name it -- and about two hundred high school graduates. I was seventeen, one of the graduates, and buzzing on the heady scent of “how did a kid from the New Orleans East suburbs land an invitation to this?” The summit included speeches, round tables, luncheons and then lavish banquets and entertainment each evening. The Golden Plate Awards were scheduled for the final glamorous act of the summit (too spectacular to be called a conference), but I would not receive an award. My reward was just being present. The awards were given to the industry leaders and innovators honored. They were also the speech givers, the round table participants, the entertainment, and our breakfast, lunch, and dinner dates. Some people choose immersion to learn a language. Apparently, we’d chosen immersion to learn about success. And it went something like this:
After getting settled, we met on the steps of the lodge for a hayride. Trevor Nunn, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, helped me aboard and we talked about theater for the next several minutes. The hayride transitioned into a barbecue at dusk where Martha Stewart poured me a cup of cold, apple cider. We talked about my love of meringue and her love that my mom watched her cooking show every night at 5:30. On my way back to my room, I literally bumped into Robert Zemeckis. We talked about Forrest Gump. He introduced me to Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. We talked about everything. The next morning after breakfast, I met George Lukas. I said, “You gave me an imagination.” He said, “That’s great. Go use it.” And it wasn’t until I settled into the first speech and Katarina Witt asked me if she could sit next to me and then said, “It’s chilly in here, no?” in that adorable accent of hers that I thought maybe I’m just asleep in that fancy loft and dreaming about hobnobbing with academy award winners and people who have Oprah’s number on speed dial?
The rest of the weekend went just like that. I did the “Luke, you are my son” bit from Star Wars with James Earl Jones. I walked into the ladies room and witnessed Amy Grant, sitting on the counter coaching an aspiring singer, some young kid who was choking through tears about how much she needed to be a singer herself. Amy Grant was crying too. They later sang a duet together. God, I hope that girl’s dream came true. That afternoon, Tom Sellick and I split a bagel and lox. That was surreal, but was nothing compared to meeting Kathleen Battle. I heard her voice over all the others when we sang the national anthem before dinner. I recognized it instantly. By then I was accustomed to approaching celebrities at random and made a beeline to her table. We were both wearing gold. I’ll never forget that I wore gold the night I met Kathleen Battle. It just fit the occasion so perfectly. But more than that, I’ll never forget what happened after. “I want you to meet my friend,” she said. Her friend was Rosa Parks -- THE Rosa Parks!!! It was one of the few times in my life when I couldn’t speak. I said something...eventually. God, I hope it was sufficient.
The celebrity experiences were fun and too fantastic to bottle, but what stuck with me more than anything were their speeches. They were teaching us how to be Gold Plate recipients ourselves. Elie Wiesel warned of the danger of indifference. Dr. Johnnetta Cole (the best speech giver ever -- period) implored us to cling to what mattered to us most. Martha Stewart advised us to figure out what it is we love, even if it’s planting flower beds, and figure out how to get paid to do it. I went home with recordings of these symposiums, as many as I could afford. Even the talks by astrophysicists and doctors would play on my boom box, in my car, and well into my twenties. That long weekend in Sun Valley lasted years on me. I eventually lost all my tapes and pictures in Katrina. It was one of my toughest losses to swallow that September in 2005, but I haven’t forgotten what it felt like to break bread with Larry King, laugh at Amy’s Tan’s loose tongue, and know what the hell an astrophysicist actually did.
On occasion, I pull out the yearbook from that weekend. (Miraculously it survived the storm on a top shelf at mom’s house.) In it are pictures and biographies of all of the Golden Plate award recipients of that year and then the headshot of every high school graduate attendee. I attended the summit as a representative of the Veterans of Foreign Wars for whom I’d written an award-winning speech about America’s call to protect freedom. I’m not sure what qualified the majority of the other kids to be there, but they were smart, smart, smart. And talented. I remember one kid performed the monologue that earned him his full scholarship to Juilliard. (I also remember wondering if Trevor Nunn thought he was any good.) It seemed like all the kids around me that weekend were going to Harvard and Yale type schools and were all declaring majors in something extraordinary, and you just knew that a handful of them would eventually be awarded a Golden Plate themselves. I was going to Southern Miss. No one had heard of it.
“Is that like Ole Miss?” some future astrophysicist would ask.
“No, it’s the University of Southern Mississippi.”
“Oh...in Mississippi? Hmmm…”
I guess it wasn’t impressive next to a free ride to Julliard. But Kathleen Battle knew Southern Miss. She knew about their music department too. Still, I think I can trace my first pangs of feeling ordinary back to that extraordinary weekend. Funny how we sometimes fall as soon as we put on heels.
I’ve read the bios in the yearbook of all the speakers over and over in the decades since that summit. I’ve watched their biographies on television and even read their autobiographies if they had any . And with the exception of speaking up when in the right place at the right time, none of them found success by chance. Luck didn’t fall in their laps. (Believe me, I’ve looked for the loopholes in their stories.) Instead, they worked their asses off until their tired bones collapsed at night only to wake up and go at it again the next day. They earned their Gold Plates through grit, determination, and even defiance -- all the elements that we already know about success. Even an inexperienced high school grad like myself knew that laziness didn’t lead to success. It was the way they spoke about their lives that moved me. And it was never awards and popularity or even celebrity that was the good stuff they reflected on. All of that was just fluff. In listening to them, you got the sense that they’d have kept going even if they knew they’d never get an Oscar, Pulitzer, Nobel Peace Prize, or a Golden Plate. It was the vital element to success that I was far too young to understand in 1996. It’s a fact of life I’m only just now able to understand and, frankly, come to peace with: If the wait isn’t enough, what you want isn’t enough.
Advent recently ended. Whether you’re Christian and you spend those weeks remembering how the wait for a messiah pulled folks through some pretty nasty times, or you’re a child and you know sweet, beautiful, unabashed Christmas is so.close.you.can’t.sleep, there is something in the air that drives us to the finish line. Some years I’m a little down when all the holiday movies, gift wrapping, and cookies fade into another December’s history. Actors feel this way when a show closes. Many brides have post-wedding blues. It’s almost as if the lead up to Christmas, the rehearsals, and the planning are so enjoyable that the endgame’s finality pales in comparison to its euphoric anticipation. The wait — seasonal traditions, mastering a challenging role, and the fun before a big event — they are sometimes enough because the process involves so much of what brings us joy.
And so as I face a new year, is it just another year of tiresome waiting? Or is it another year of energized waiting? I have goals and other summits I want to reach. I’m trying. I really am. I know you are too. But it’s hard work, this waiting. It’s difficult to invest time knowing it may not produce what we want. Giving isn’t as easy as receiving. And so we have to ask ourselves, if we never reach that summit, if we never receive our Golden Plate (whatever that may be) will the wait have been enough?
I know enough to know that before me came thousands of extraordinary people who gave their lives to waiting and never got their Golden Plate, at least not in their lifetimes. Early civil rights leaders, women’s rights earliest voices, and those first brave souls who dared to read the Bible in English and break from religious norms, to name a few. We know their names...now. But they mostly knew a life in waiting. And what about the millions of names we will never know? The artists, doctors, webmasters, teachers, restaurateurs, plumbers, roofers — all the ordinary folks whose waiting never amounts to more than an impression on a small group of people?
I’m no preeminent leader or innovator, but from my Motel 6 perspective, I think the other vital element of success, no matter what you’re waiting for — a dream job, a family, equality, or peace — is that if it’s worth the wait, even the ordinary will feel extraordinary. Even for a kid from the burbs who didn’t go to Harvard.