“Les is More”
A High School Valedictorian Delivers His Speech – 40 Years Late
by Joe Dobrow ©2021
[You can also view the Medium.com version of this story with photos.]
Dear Members of the Great Neck South Class of 1981:
An unfathomable 40 years ago this week, nearly 300 of us ascended the stage at Westbury Music Fair to receive our high school diplomas.
The ceremony had all of the usual trappings: caps, gowns, broad smiles, doting parents, Pomp and Circumstance, flipped tassels, group photos, goodbye hugs. One thing it did not have was a valedictory speech. And that’s because I chose not to give one.
Mind you, that wasn’t the plan. The previous year, I had made the trek out to Westbury to attend the GNS graduation as an usher or some such thing. On that occasion, I sat in the back row listening to the speeches and began to imagine what our ceremony would be like. I knew at the time there was a chance that I might become our class valedictorian and hence I would have the opportunity to philosophize and pontificate about whatever essential truths an 18-year-old thinks he might have stumbled upon. So on that late spring day in 1980, I hubristically allowed my mind to drift off and start writing the speech that I might give in 1981. I even jotted down some notes – which focused on the virtues of humility, a topic that had been on my mind for years as I sought to balance my own academic ambitions with my distaste for the shenanigans of friends like Les Nelkin, who would sometimes hold his exam above his head and playfully parade around the room with his impressive grade. In the notes, I chided “my fellow inmates” for being so competitive, and said that I had learned to be compassionate “because there was such a glaring absence of it.” Phew.
For all of his lack of humility, however, Les and I had been friends for a long time. We had known of each other in elementary school, but it was just a passing acquaintance until we were thrust together in 7th grade in the same “SWIS” or School Within a School section. There it became clear that we would be friendly rivals for a long time to come. He was an outspoken conservative and fan of Ronald Reagan, the outgoing 64-year-old Governor of California, and I was an unformed lump of liberal-leaning political clay. He and his family regularly vacationed at the highly polished Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood, Florida, while I had often stayed with my family at the casual ranch-style Jokake Inn in Phoenix. We argued about important issues of the day, such as whether it was ethical for his family to go back to the salad bar at the Steer Barn restaurant as they were leaving so they could take some extra bread home.
In those days Les was confident but a little unsophisticated socially, upright and by-the-books, never a hair out of place, perhaps easy to make fun of – until he shot up a few inches, began training as a swimmer, and bulked up. But whatever else he may have been, Les was always an outstanding student who (I knew from his post-exam parades) was every bit as good as I was, and maybe better. One time in an English class, the word “sanguine” came up in a reading and Les commented that there were two very different meanings, bloody and cheerful, and then mic-dropped his pencil and looked around the room to bask in the accolades. “How did he possibly know that?” I remember thinking.
One afternoon during the fall of our senior year, Principal Gil Blum telephoned to inform me that I had in fact been named valedictorian (courtesy of an inflated grade point average, courtesy of years of easy Latin tests). I remember my mother being stunned – she had no idea that I had racked up such a good GPA because for years all I had done was bemoan my performance on exams (until the scores actually came back) – but for me, it simply felt like a moment of quiet triumph. I was one of those kids who had always enjoyed a good measure of success at everything I had tried, and thus had long thought of myself as someone with tremendous “potential.” Close friends and family had often whispered about all the wondrous things that lay ahead for me – surely, they said, I was destined to be a smashing success, famous, rich, accomplished, something – and now this academic achievement seemed to validate all of those predictions. Yet I certainly wasn’t going to crow about it, even after Les and some of my friends told me that if I insisted on being so low key about my accomplishments, I should surrender the valedictorian title to someone else.
But the rest of that senior year delivered a series of unexpected jolts: the election of Reagan to the White House, a struggle to escape my linear way of thinking and understand calculus, an injury that forced me to miss some school and resulted in an end to my streak of straight A’s – and then on April 15 a thin envelope from my #1 choice of colleges (waitlisted by Amherst). At that moment, when I was still deep in thought about what I should say in my graduation speech, for the first time I truly came to understand the way of the world: we do not fully control our own destinies, there will be disappointments, potential means nothing, ambition must be tempered, humility does not get rewarded by others, and outcomes will sometimes seem unjust. I couldn’t have quite articulated it at the time, but I think a new reality was dawning on me: my life had already peaked. It would never get better for me than it had been at 17, when there was still so much promise, so much hope, so much confidence that I could become the valedictorian or “be anything I wanted to be.” And that was a reality I couldn’t share with my classmates.
So… I decided not to give a speech at all. Maybe it was my immature and self-masochistic way of trying to teach the world a lesson: you disappointed me, so now I won’t give you what you expect of me. This was the first instance of a pattern I would repeat again and again in life. By denying myself what I truly wanted, I hoped the people around me would shower me with sympathy and praise, which in some way would ultimately make me feel better than if I had just done what I truly wanted to do in the first place. Only, no one really cared or noticed. I think I may have had one conversation with Gil Blum about my decision to become perhaps the first valedictorian in school history not to deliver a valedictory speech, but that was it. No asking me to reconsider. No second chance. No encouraging pat on the back. Instead, when graduation day arrived, the school made me get up there and bid farewell to eight retiring teachers and administrators whom I did not even know (“I have been asked to read the following,” I pointedly noted), and that was my only moment in the spotlight. Exit stage right, for the rest of all time.
I never again returned to Westbury Music Fair, literally or figuratively.
Today, as I contemplate the decades that have evaporated since June 17, 1981, exactly half of which have been lived without Les Nelkin on the planet, I think I am finally ready to offer some philosophizing and pontification, beyond just an exercise in humility. After all, it’s a lot easier to get to those essential truths at 58 than it ever was at 18.
One platitude I might have offered back in 1981 is that life is short, so we must “seize the day.” Horace, right? Or maybe I would have quoted a lesser prophet, Al Stewart, whose 1978 song “Time Passages” had become a radio staple by the time we were graduating from high school: “Well I’m not the kind to live in the past, the years run too short and the days too fast, the things you lean on are the things that don’t last.”
Of course, at that point the members of the Class of 1981 had lived slightly less than a quarter of our lives, actuarially speaking, so in fact life neither felt, nor actually was, short. Eighteen-year-olds have no sense of time. It is true that two of our classmates never lived beyond that summer of 1981, but for me there was no real sense of carpe diem until much, much later. Even when Les died in 2001 of a pediatric form of cancer, and then just a few weeks later when our innocence came crashing down along with the South Tower of the World Trade Center, it still mostly felt to me like I was planning for a future, the future, my future, climbing the corporate ladder, making short-term sacrifices for long-term ambitions and dreams. Pre-ordained for greatness – isn’t that what I had always been told?
Les ended up finishing, what, 3rd or 4th in the class? But throughout junior high and high school he had done little except study and swim, and so when it came time for the awards to be handed out to our graduating class, he was relatively unknown by the faculty and hence there were none bestowed upon him. As graduation day loomed I dwelled on this, and felt that it was an injustice. Because despite his strong political opinions and competitive spirit, he was a very decent human being and a good friend; and by 1981 he had clearly begun to develop a little bit of the worldliness and sense of empathy that had eluded him years earlier (he even wrote in my high school yearbook: “…now that we’ve made it, I can fairly honestly say that I understand your point of view”). On my way to Westbury on graduation day, I stopped by a bakery to pick up a cake that I had ordered for him. I presented it to him after the ceremony. It said in frosting: “Good Guy Award.” Thanks to him, I guess I had already begun to move beyond my own self-centered world of ambition and gnawing disappointment.
Today, on the 40th anniversary of our graduation, most of our lives are behind us. Our parents are dead or dying, our friends are dying, our kids (well, your kids – I never had any) are in the working world themselves. We are always tired, and we look haggard and world-weary. We have had way too many occasions to worry about some lump or spot or contemplate what is left of our future from inside an MRI tube. We have lived through Challenger, and 9/11, and recessions, and Trump, and most of a pandemic, but they have all scarred us. Time feels precious in a way it never could have before, even had Les Nelkin somehow known on graduation day in 1981 that the 70-year-old President Ronald Reagan, recovering from an assassination attempt a few weeks earlier, would actually outlive him by three years. Seize the day? Hell yeah.
In my imagined high school speech, I might have also admonished my classmates to not work so damned hard. “Stop and smell the roses,” I might have said, or “step off the treadmill once in a while” (the world hadn’t yet gotten to the more evolved concept of “work-life balance”). Not all of them were like that, of course, and I now suspect that many of them had already at least gotten a whiff of the roses and were better off for it. But I didn’t know much about life then because throughout high school I had existed in an echo chamber of fairly one-dimensional students like Les. It would take many more years before he and I would learn to not work so hard, and then it was only because he was ravaged by cancer and I got shoved off the treadmill by companies that didn’t want me anymore, not because of anything voluntary.
But in 1981 I went right from being a grind in high school to being a grind in college – chasing good grades at the expense of true learning, pulling all-nighters, sometimes going days on end without any human interaction because I was obsessively writing a paper or studying for finals. I did other things outside of school, but only because I slept less and pushed myself to the limits. One time when I was sitting silently at a common dinner table, lost in thought, a stranger on the other side of the table picked up his tray to leave and just said to me, “Ease up!” Wow, was I really wearing my intense self-absorption on my face? By the end of my junior year in college I had burned out, and took the semester off – to go to work, of course.
Five under-achieving years in the business world later, graduate school would be more of the same. I entered with the best of intentions (learning for learning’s sake, synthesizing a new career path, developing a real social life), but immediately fell right back into my old patterns: keeping to myself, studying too much and too hard, deprioritizing everything else, pursuing good grades even though the highest one you could get at the Yale School of Management was “Proficient.” I seriously considered dropping out. I didn’t – but I emerged from business school no more capable of rose-smelling or treadmill-exiting than I had been in 1981.
In the years that followed I discovered fulfilling work in the natural foods industry and met a woman with whom I would spend the rest of my days, but that work-life balance continued to elude me. The gyrations of an era of downsizing, aggressive mergers and acquisitions, and radical changes in my field of marketing – along with my own restlessness – led to a ridiculous amount of career instability for one who had shown so much promise as a kid. Even after being laid off in 2002, and then – incredibly – being laid off again in 2003, 2006 and 2007, I still hadn’t gotten my own intended message from the high-school-valedictory-that-wasn’t: I was working too hard. I had come to rely on my job for everything, giving it my all but invariably getting little in return.
It wasn’t until my fifth (!) layoff, in 2012, that I finally decided enough was enough. Despite two mortgages and other financial pressures, I would never return to a traditional job again. I started my own part-time education business and wrote a couple of books, and while all three were total commercial failures, they at least afforded me the time to prioritize other things, such as playing with my cats and riding my bicycle – beloved activities that have, effectively, become my life’s work.
And yes, I have a rosebush planted in my front yard in Colorado.
Had I addressed the graduates of the Class of 1981 on that fine June day, in all my already-passe tan pinstriped three-piece polyester-blend suit and too-long sideburns glory, there is one other message I might have tried to deliver. And that would have been something about maintaining goodness in the pursuit of greatness.
Like a lot of kids of our era in our progressive suburban hometown, I always had a strong instinct to lend a helping hand. It wasn’t a sense of what we would today call social justice, because I had led too comfortable and cloistered an existence to understand the inequities of the human condition. But it did include supporting those who were afflicted by diseases, as well as a driving impulse to help preserve the environment. What else could be expected of a boy who spent his 7th birthday joining the first Earth Day celebration by picking up garbage off the streets?
Throughout high school I devoted most of my free time to working with the Community Action Committee, which organized fundraisers for the March of Dimes, United Cerebral Palsy, and other causes. Our biggest and most important event was the Scott Moss Cancer Walk-a-Thon, in memory of a former Great Neck South student. On some occasions, I can recall, I left homeroom to go make public address announcements promoting the walk-a-thon, and would then return to homeroom to be gently mocked by Les Nelkin. “Dobrow, why do you waste your time doing these things?” he asked. “They just get in the way of schoolwork. Do you really think the money you raise is going to help cure cancer?” On a certain level he was right, of course. But looking back at it now – Jesus H. Christ, the irony.
Still, that impulse stayed with me throughout my career. Almost all of my jobs were with mission-oriented, purpose-driven niche organizations. I never got rich, or famous, or even successful. But the psychic rewards were significant, because there is nothing quite so fulfilling as knowing that your efforts are improving the lives of others or helping to save the planet.
Sometime in the spring of 2001, when I was working for Discovery Channel during an interlude between natural foods jobs, I was in New York and stopped by to see Les. By this time he was deep in the grips of Wilm’s Disease, which had sapped much of his energy, withered his hulking physique, and devastated his helmet hair. His voice was raspy and monotone. He audibly sucked in breaths with every sentence. But there was still hope that he would recover. “Dobrow,” he told me in a gracious and bittersweet confession, “I gotta’ tell you, I have switched to eating all organic food and it’s making me feel better.” I laughed and made a mental note to send him some food samples and recommendations. But I didn’t get around to it. And I never saw Les Nelkin again.
Anyway, members of the Class of 1981, what I can at long last tell you is that I made a bad decision in not giving a valedictory speech. I had been granted the honor not to celebrate my accomplishments but to represent all of you in celebrating our mutual accomplishments; and I didn’t show up to do that. Some of us had been together from the very headwaters of education in Great Neck, through five schools, but all of us shared a deep bond on that day. It shouldn’t have mattered that my humility was couching bitterness, or that I was starting to get swept up in disillusionments about what the world really had in store for me, or that in fact I had nothing of value to say. Had I really stopped to think about it, I would have gotten up on that stage and passed along some of the lessons that my friend Les Nelkin had been trying to teach me. Competition doesn’t preclude friendship. “Winning isn’t everything – but wanting to win is” (his yearbook quote, from Vince Lombardi). And most importantly, sometimes we need to parade our success.
But I couldn’t hear him. I hadn’t lived enough of my life yet, and unfortunately he had.
If I had somehow had the perspicacity to know that, and to truly understand how the years run too short and the days too fast – to know that there would never be another moment on stage – then I would have given a speech, thanking all of you – Jason, Gil, Barry, Marc, Beth, Josh, Gillian, Laurie, Nancy, Ed, Lisa, Gary, many more, and especially my friend Les – for eliciting the best from me and beginning my long transformation into a better, happier, more complete person.
I hope that these four decades have been as kind to you.