There are those who push us to be better than we are and people who show us there are better versions of us. While many have been fortunate enough to be pushed at some point in our lives. Having someone show you a better version of yourself is a transformational act of faith. In my senior year, I met a man who saw a version of me I didn’t even know existed and, through acts of faith, transformed my life.
I grew up in a small town in Maryland, the son of blue-collar parents. My family was somewhere between poor and middle class. We had food, a roof over our heads, and clothes on our back – the byproduct of a strong work ethic and focusing on needs over wants. It provided a sense of security, and for that, I am grateful. Growing up, I expected that I’d like high school either to get a job or join the military like my father. Neither of those options motivated me in school.
Early on, I tested into advanced classes and worked just hard enough to maintain that through junior high school. When getting out is my only motivation to be in school, I start doing just enough to get by. My parents can probably recount all the times I played chicken with my grades, rallying to avoid failing at the end of the quarter. It sounds like an excuse, but since college wasn’t in the cards, it was my reality.
By high school, I added undisciplined to my portfolio, devising shortcuts and exploring the world of juvenile delinquency. Call it smart, lucky, or the divine hand of God, I, somehow, managed to avoid getting arrested and forever soiling my “permanent record.”
Strangely, getting a job in my junior year pushed me to improve my grades but financed bad behavior out of school. I had no guide for going to college – I’m not really sure if I knew anyone with a college degree outside of my teachers – and I was on the bubble with most of them. When I looked at colleges, I couldn’t figure out how to make it work. I knew that if I was going to have even a shot, I had to pick up the pace.
In my senior year, I had to take Contemporary Issues, known as Civics or U.S. Government in other schools. Our teacher for the class was Mr. Don Marvel, who had been assigned his first College Preparatory class in years. Little did I know on that first day of class that Mr. Marvel would become one of the most influential figures in my life.
Meet Don Marvel
Mr. Marvel was an unassuming man who projected calm and warmth to anyone he met. He was a product of the very high school where he taught after serving his country in the U.S. Army and graduating from Ranger School. As a high schooler, he was a year-round athlete from wrestling to cross-country to baseball. Even in his teaching days, he was an avid runner and remained so until just before he passed away. There must be something to distance runners that instills a patience that most of us envy – because he had it in great supply.
The most important thing about Mr. Marvel was that he loved his students and the subject he taught. You have to imagine the uncertainty of teaching a class based on U.S. government where anyone could label you as “indoctrinating” your students. Truth is, to this day, I couldn’t tell you if he was a Republican, Democrat, conservative, or liberal – or even a Communist. He loved our country and accepted the incredible burden of turning teenagers on the brink of adulthood into good citizens or attempting to do so at any rate. He trusted us enough to figure out what we believed, but he didn’t want his students to miss out on the value of being engaged citizens and it showed.
He did this, not only as a classroom teacher, but as the advisor to the Interact Club, sponsored by the local Rotary. The club’s purpose was to serve the community, and members were required to do volunteer service throughout the year. The club was not only one of the largest in school but also one of the most active, and Mr. Marvel worked tirelessly to give us opportunities to serve. He encouraged me to join and made sure I was in the club photo, even though it wasn’t my nature.
One of the most memorable events happened when he colluded with one of my classmates to search her purse during class, which ended with her storming out of the room. I missed the whole exchange but heard about it quite a bit the next day. In the following class, he let on that it was planned but that we would have a mock trial. For reasons I will never understand, he asked me to be his lawyer. In those days, I was not an eager public speaker, so arguing a clearly unwinnable case was the most intimidating thing I’d ever done. We got a hung jury in the case, more on his popularity with the students than my amateur lawyering. That trial was the final reason I dedicated my career to public policy.
The class awakened my passion for policy and our country, the reason I entered politics after college. That alone was a gift but not the reason I am writing this. The reason is a simple note card sent in March, 1988. The envelope, addressed to my parents, simply had the school’s return address. In my experience, that never meant good news. The note contained words that still carry great meaning today:
It is truly refreshing to be around a young man with such enthusiasm and such willingness to participate and to volunteer. Thanks for sending him to us!
I remember thinking first that the note had to be for someone else – but there was my name. Ironically, in my last year of school, one of my teachers actually thought enough to send home a note to say I was doing something good. After debating for a week, I finally decided to thank him for sending the note to my house. I told him I wasn’t sure I was worthy of the praise, but I really appreciated it.
He looked at me and said, “Scott, the only failure you’ll know is what you are too afraid to do. You have everything you need to do good things. Don’t ever sell yourself short. I expect to see you do it.”
Mr. Marvel admitted to us at the end of the year that he’d rarely enjoyed teaching College Prep students – in hindsight, I get where he’s coming from. But, he said, slightly emotionally, we were different.
Truth is, he may have sent a nice note to everyone in the class. It doesn’t matter. The note symbolizes the faith he put in me – from being his lousy attorney to showing me that graduation wasn’t the end of my story…just the beginning.
I still carry that note with me thirty years later. After all I’ve achieved, Mr. Marvel was right that I would be my only limitation. Don Marvel died in 2015 after a long battle with kidney cancer. Although he left us all for the next life, a piece of him travels with me every day, and one of his unexpected legacies is the man writing this piece today and the life that came with it.
Today, that card symbolizes something much bigger — the transformational power of faith in each other. While it was in short supply in 1988, it is nearly extinct today.
Placing our faith in others – whether it is a person or even our government – gets targeted by cynicism at a rapid-fire clip. And so, rather than risking it, we leave it to others to exercise it, and well, here we are.
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” Mr. Marvel saw past my faults and exercised more faith in me than any human being ever had. If I have done good in this world, it stems from the act of kindness he showed me.
It also instilled a faith that, while tested, makes me a believer in our future. A faith that no matter how bad things may seem, we can repair our faults. We need to awaken that faith on a broad scale. To repeat the words Mr. Marvel said to me in 1988, “The only failure you’ll know is what you are too afraid to do.” I hope like hell we find that faith again.