Monday, September 12, 2011

The Andover Experience – From Agony to “Success”


Our family moved from Puerto Rico to Saranac Lake in the New York Adirondacks in 1950 when I was 6 years old. I attended St. Bernard’s School whose principal goal was to develop good kids who did well on the New York State Regents general exams in math, English and history as well as on the Ogdenburg Diocese religion tests. I was a responsible student and had a good memory which was what was needed in order to do well in the true and false and multiple choice academic environment. In 7th grade my average was 97%.  My father, who sensed that the educational system was inadequate, had decided that I should go to a private school, and his first choice was Phillips Andover Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, known simply as “Andover”,  where my uncles Billy and Dickie had studied, and where my granduncle, Guillermo Gonz├ílez, was the inverviewer. I had visited Andover in the summer of 1956 and was highly impressed with the campus, especially the athletic facilities that included artificial ice and roof covered hockey rink – a rareluxury at that time.

Despite my grades, leadership roles in all the sports available in Saranac Lake (football, basketball, skiing, hockey and baseball), and family connections, I was rejected by Andover. In response to my granduncle’s request for an explanation, Robert Sides, the Dean of Admissions, explained how badly I had done on the aptitude tests and my interview at Andover about 18 months before. In addition, Andover had no experience with St. Bernard’s so that my grades and extracurricular activities could not be adequately evaluated. He suggested that I attend the Summer Session if I was “dying to come to Andover” on “a sort of long-chance basis” that I would do “ a top-flight job in every respect” that could allow Andover to “squeeze” me in September if a withdrawal took place, or help me better compete for the following year.  

I had been accepted at Cranwell, a very good Jesuit school in Lenox Massachusetts, but we (especially my father) were dying to go to Andover – the oldest and best private school in the country. My father’s response to Robert Sides’s letter to my granduncle, diplomatically expresses disappointment with Andover’s decision “as I still must insist that he is as fine a boy as you can get and at his age is fully prepared to assume any responsibility.”  My father goes on to state (so you can appreciate the pressure under which I went to the 1957 Andover Summer Session): ”On your recommendation and on my full faith in him, I (notice the “I”) have decided to apply for admission to the Andover Summer Session, so that you may know him well and that, in the event he decides to apply for admission in the fall of 1959, he may have a better chance of acceptance.”     

I was accepted to the Summer Session and off I went with more pressure than I had ever felt (and that I have ever felt thereafter). Utter agony followed. I received a zero on my first math exam. The first essay was on a painting to be chosen by each student at the Addison Art Gallery located on Andover’s beautiful campus, and we were instructed to try to not go beyond 1,500 words.  I had never visited an art gallery and much less analyzed a painting, and my very few essays at St. Bernard’s had been in the 150 word range. I put enormous effort into this essay and the grade was a 55. Thus, after about 10 days of the 7 week session, I had a 27% average. In April I had turned 14 and this was my first time away from home with no one I knew from the past to turn to. What brought the most agony was letting down those who had vouched so strongly for me. It appeared that Andover had been right! I had trouble sleeping and agonized on whether to give up, but I decided to continue fighting.

 I ended up with an average in the upper 60% range.  The report of my English teacher was mixed (”Found the subtler demands of poetry a little more than he could cope with. Does well in reasoning and memory work, but seems to lack the imaginative, or intuitive, faculty, though this may develop with practice. Faced with the difficulties suggested above, Jorge lost much of his will to strive; however, at the very end of the course, it seemed apparent that, placed in the same situation again, he would be more capable of handling it.”). The report of the housemaster was somewhat more positive, “Jorge has shown considerable improvement in his scholastic achievement in the second half of the summer session thus demonstrating that he has profited by his stay here.”

With this rather miserable scholastic performance, the request that we meet with the Admissions Officer, Joshua Miner, seemed like something I would have preferred to skip. I certainly had not done a “top flight job” and my parents and I fully expected a “told you so” farewell. Much to our surprise, Josh Miner (we became very good friends over the next few years) advised that the Admissions Office had been very well impressed with me, felt that I could do the academic work although it would take a lot of effort on my part to catch up, and that I was first on the waiting list for that September should an opening develop.

The opening came up and so I went to Andover fully aware that academically speaking I was going to have some serious challenges and fearful that my athletic skills would not be enough for what was a very competitive program with varsity schedules against top private schools and college freshman and, in ice hockey, Harvard and Boston College Junior Varsity teams. 

I did have the expected academic challenges with math and English grades in the mid 60%.   My Pemberton Cottage Housemaster’s December Report accurately reflected on how tough things were and how things were not expected to improve much: “Although he finds the work quite difficult at times, he is uniformly good-humored; and the refusal to become discouraged will be his greatest asset, for we cannot expect the work to become much easier for him. His morale will certainly be helped by the discovery that he can indeed hold his own here and even make some gains.”

My grades in math and English “improved” to 69%, and although I very slowly but surely gained some confidence, Robert Lane’s year end Report again reflected accurately what had happened and what was expected in the academic sphere: “ Jorge has maintained his position all year by the most conscientious and steady effort. We all knew that he would find many difficulties in the work at Andover, but he has met them quietly and with spirit. Although the academic record has no distinctions [what a superb understatement!], it is adequate and consistent, and better than I, for one, expected.”     

Things started clicking during my second year and by March I had three grades in the 80% range (88%, 85% and 80%) and math and English grades of 75% and 73%.  To my pleasant surprise, my God given athletic skills were Andover level so I lettered in my three sports of football, ice hockey and baseball). To my utter shock, at the end of that second year I won the Keyes Prize as the “Lower Middler [sophomore] for outstanding qualities of character, leadership, scholarship and athletic ability.”

Mr. Shertzer, my second year housemaster, summarized the year as follows: “Jorge has had an outstanding year. He was honored at prize day as the outstanding Lower, distinguishing himself in athletics, academics and citizenship.”  To this day I am still surprised by that prize since there were more outstanding classmates; modesty aside, however, I would have deserved a prize for the most persevering and/or improved student. These prizes were not available that prize day and I suspect this undeserved Keyes Prize was a way to reward me, not for the achievements, but rather for the successful effort in going from an initially rejected and dubiously accepted applicant, to a well rounded student who met the headmaster’s challenge in his welcoming letter to all students of September, 1958: “We work hard and we play hard. We try to do things better than they’ve been done before, or better than they are done elsewhere.  We have a high respect for a job well done … whether it’s an academic, athletic, dramatic, musical or artistic performance. Out concern is for quality – to produce, each of us, the best he has in him.  In this sort of striving there is bound to be a great deal of satisfaction, hence pleasure. May it be so for you.”

The Andover Headmaster, John Kemper, appeared in the Time magazine cover of October 26, 1962 a few months after we graduated.  He is quoted as recognizing that both the school and parents overemphasize the goal of a good college and job and “There’s just not enough emphasis on the old dream of simply being a good father, a good man.”   The article commences with a quote from the Andover charter that is very appropriate: “But more especially to learn them the great end and real business of living.”  Is not this tension between the day to day striving for excellence in our business/professional role versus our family/community roles the ever present challenge we all face?   

With respect to my development over two years from the athlete/marginal student to the student/athlete, the Time magazine has an interesting statement: “All this [referring to the intense Andover athletic programs in which all students had to participate] bespeaks the enduring Andover, which is run on nothing more complicated than the primitive idea of ordeal. But the ordeal is far different from the one old grads remember. Everyone still looks up to the ‘jock’ or man with a major ‘A,’ But these days the jock has to be a lot more – an actor, a proctor, a Merit scholar. The balanced hero is in. The snob is out.”

I believe it was late in the fall term that I ran into my first year Housemaster, Robert Lane, who made the expected inquiry as to what universities I was applying to. When I answered Harvard and Dartmouth, he asked where else. When I told him that I was applying to only these two schools, his look of surprise led me to suspect that in his mind I still suffered from unrealistic expectations. I told him that I had received A ratings from both which meant that I would be accepted unless I completely fell apart in what was left of my senior year. My grade average of 83% had put me into the academic level that qualified me for the top universities. These grades, and my extracurricular activities, led to the A ratings. These ratings and my admission into these two schools, at least from Andover’s perspective, constituted “success.”

At our graduation on June 8, 1962 I won the Schweppes Prize for friendliness and cooperation and others befittingly won the prizes honoring the best students and athletes thus confirming what I felt as a Lower Middler upon undeservedly winning the Keyes Prize.

The Andover experience that started with such agony and was always an “ordeal,” provided great satisfaction and pleasure as promised by John Kemper. In addition, it provided two lessons that I have been impactful in my life. The first was the realization of how utterly ineffective the objective, standardized testing education can be so that I cringe with programs like the “No child left behind.” As President of the Puerto Rico Chapter of the United Nations Association of the USA, I am devoting a lot of time to brining the Model UN Program to the public schools so that the students measured by true and false and multiple choice testing are exposed to a program that rewards research, analytical thinking, oratory, writing, negotiation, and conflict resolution skills.

The second was the realization that Andover prized “Type A Behavior” where one competes in all fields and rarely relaxes. It took some years to realize that I needed to relax more and be a more nurturing family man and friend. My new career as a self employed consultant in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, as well as the reduction of economic pressures after a 42 year corporate law career, should allow me to relax more and be a more nurturing human being.

In short, my definition of “success” still includes the elements Andover instilled of working and playing hard, but also other elements that Andover should have included.