When I was a senior in high school, my classmates voted titles for the can’t-miss among us. There was “most athletic”, “most attractive”, “smartest” and, of course, “most likely to succeed”. From our lofty perch atop the high school pecking order, we felt like we had a pretty good grip on things, and we assumed the people granted these titles were guaranteed to earn one more: “most likely to be happy when he/she grows up”.
One fellow senior wasn’t part of the high school royalty. She was smart, but not the smartest. Attractive in her own way, but no beauty queen. Not athletic, but not a dork, either. But she was inevitably happy, even though her parents had died when she was young.
We unofficially labeled her “most likely to be nice” because that was her calling card: If you needed help, she’d be there. Every time.
Of course, you know what being nice in high school gets you: nothing. Instead, she was easy to ignore and easy to make fun of. Behind her back, we talked about her as the person most likely to turn the other cheek; we all agreed if someone walked up to her and slapped her for no reason, she would probably just smile and keep talking.
Some of us left home for college; I guess she left, too, although I didn’t keep up with her. Others stayed near home for school or for jobs. We kept in touch, comparing notes about our colleges, jobs, grades and dating.
Years later, it was time for a reunion.
It was easy to tell who was successful in the traditional sense of having a great job or nice clothes — those people couldn’t wait to show-and-tell. Most of them weren’t the people we endowed with those honorary titles, either.
As for the high school royalty … well, I did notice the sports stud and the cheerleader were married, but they skipped college and lived in a trailer. Maybe they were successful, even happy, but it wasn’t obvious, and it wasn’t what we expected.
And I didn’t see the nice girl at the reunion, either.
The years passed, and now that I’m nearing one of those birthdays when people wear black and give you lots of “old” stuff, it strikes me that our view of success back then was pretty shallow, and our assumption that “success” automatically brings “happiness” seems hopelessly naïve. Most of the hot-shots from high school never realized the success we thought they would; from what I can tell, happiness might have eluded them, too.
And not long ago, I heard from the nice girl. She’s a minister now. She has a husband and kids. She likes her job, even though I’m pretty sure she doesn’t make much money. She’s still nice. And she’s definitely happy.
She’s the one person from our class who really earned the title “most successful”.