I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Preston Coventry, one of the more popular kids in the ninth grade, had invited me to the grand opening of his neighborhood association’s swimming pool. When the appointed day arrived, I hiked across town to the posh facility where I was greeted by a tall fence and a stern guard. After I waited a couple of minutes, Preston approached the gate, gave a quick nod, the guard pushed a button, and I was granted entrance.
Preston and I spent the entire day playing water games and chasing girls with squirt guns. It was perfectly wonderful. I had no idea that such a life even existed. But then my thoughts turned to the long walk home, so I changed clothes and headed toward the exit. As the gate shut behind me, I turned around. Then I grabbed two of the metal bars, stuck my head between them, and smiled at Preston. (I was lobbying for an invitation to return.) Preston glanced back at me and abruptly stated, “You can’t come back.”
“What?” I managed to ask.
“You’re not allowed to return,” Preston repeated. “You don’t belong.”
“What do you mean ‘I don’t belong’?” I asked.
“You don’t belong to the association. You’re a guest and are only allowed one visit a year. You’ve already had your turn.”
I managed a feeble “thank you,” extracted my head from the gate and walked home. With each step, the words, “You don’t belong,” rang painfully in my head. Then it hit me. Up until that moment, my friends and I had largely played in empty fields and open waterways. It was all free, so we were all equal. Now there was a pool, a fence, a gate, a guard, and rules. The “haves” played gleefully on one side while I trudged down the long dirt road that snaked into the heart of the valley of the have-nots.
You might think this event turned me into an avid socialist, but it didn’t. I didn’t fault the wealthy for locking the gate. Who could blame them? But it did put a question into my fourteen-year-old brain: Where did I belong? I pondered that question for quite some time.
Two decades passed until I eventually decided I belonged at a university. At least a part of me did. So, in 1980 when I finished graduate school, I accepted a faculty position. At last, I had found a home—a place where I belonged.
Before I gave my first lecture, I decided that it was time to take precautions. Having been raised by parents who had lived through The Great Depression, and spoke often of its soon-to-arrive sequel, I began the semi-paranoid task of transforming my entire backyard into a massive vegetable garden. Let the Great Debacle arrive—I’d have zucchini! So, when the first day of the semester rolled around, instead of poring over my lecture notes as most faculty members did, I borrowed a truck from my neighbor and hauled pig manure to mix with my garden’s depleted soil.
All morning long I hauled loads of “compost” from a nearby pig farm and flung the disgusting muck onto my garden bed. Then I frantically changed my clothes and hustled to campus to attend my very first faculty meeting. I couldn’t believe it. I—the poor kid who lived down the long dirt road—would be part of a faculty meeting where acclaimed educator Stephen R. Covey was scheduled to lead the discussion. He had been developing ideas about several key habits and was eager to discuss them with the rest of us.
As Dr. Covey launched into his presentation, I couldn’t help but notice a horrible stench in the room. Soon everyone started to squint, cough, and look for the source of the smell. Then I noticed my socks. Uh oh. When I changed from my farm clothes into my sports coat and slacks, I had neglected to change my manure-tainted socks, which were now emitting a repugnant odor.
It wasn’t long until my colleagues began to eyeball me—the apparent source of the smell. I fessed up. I told them about my garden, its depleted soil, the pig manure, and my socks. After a moment’s reflection, everyone laughed, I slid over to a far corner of the room, Steve moved on to turning ends into beginnings, and I thanked my lucky stars for having escaped untarnished.
But then Preston Coventry’s jarring voice hit me. The words, “You don’t belong!” reverberated through my insecure soul. One look at the scholars in the room and I was certain that none of them had ever flung pig manure and then carried the stench to a faculty meeting. These folks were polished and sophisticated. They had lovely homes, pools (probably locked), and pedigrees. They belonged. I didn’t. It took only a glance to see that.
Later that evening while visiting with my mother, I told her about the stinky-sock debacle and admitted that I didn’t believe I belonged at a university. She wouldn’t have it.
“The idea of belonging to anything is just plain silly,” Mom argued. “Sure, clubs set rules about who they let in, but in things that matter, belonging is irrelevant. It’s not how you measure up to others’ standards that matters; it’s how you feel about yourself—and that comes from being comfortable with what you do.”
“Yeah, but look what I’ve done,” I responded. “I went to a faculty meeting reeking of pig manure. Then to make matters worse, I admitted to the mistake in public.”
“Precisely,” my mother said, “And that makes you unassuming, not unworthy.”
“No, that makes me a hick, and a stupid one to boot.”
I continued to put up a fuss, but eventually decided that I would follow Mom’s advice and work on being satisfied with what I had done and who I had become, rather than where others thought I belonged—or worse still, where I thought they thought I belonged.
For the most part, this strategy has served me well, but I’d be lying if I said I’m always comfortable in my skin. There are days when I feel as if I’m that kid standing outside that swimming pool, desperately gripping the bars, and peering into a world that doesn’t want me. And then on those odd occasions when I happen to gain entry, I’m haunted by the feeling that I’m going to be asked to leave.
But then I think of the pig manure and the wonderful crops it nurtured. It helped grow a cabbage so large it didn’t fit into a bushel basket. The beets tasted like candy. My kids still talk about the sweet corn. It was heavenly.
But best of all, the pig droppings came with a lesson. If you want to be content in life, you have to be able to fling manure without looking over your shoulder to see who approves. If you can’t do that, life is a long, lonely stretch. People will continue to suggest that you don’t belong, and you’ll believe them. So give up the silly notion of belonging and think of who you are and the wonderful things you do. That’s where you’ll find satisfaction.
Oh yes, and don’t forget to change your socks.