“To a young heart, everything is fun.” — Charles Dickens
One November day during my senior year of high school, I reached a milestone I’d managed to evade for almost two decades.
I was sent home by the principal.
Earlier in the day, I’d played a practical joke on my friend Alex, who I later discovered didn’t share my amusement. As a result, he spent the better half of an afternoon plotting how to return the favor.
A few weeks before, it had rained a fair share, leaving the normally green quad soggy and caked in mud. Seniors hoping to bask in the sun during lunch were forced to dwell among the mortals inside.
It was a very difficult time.
As I made my way to class, I felt a hand on my shoulder, and not in some divine way — a real one. It was my friend Paul, who towered over me, outweighing me by a freshmen or two.
His grip was firm, his gaze steady — both tacit confirmations I was to stay put.
Moments later, Alex came barreling from behind, tackling me to the ground, driving my head into a soggy puddle of mud. Before I knew it, the two of us were embroiled in a “winner take all” mud fight. Within minutes the entire school had gathered around the quad to take in the spectacle.
Not long into our sloppy tussle, our principal Father Ranalletti stormed out. To say he was not amused would have been the understatement of the century, and maybe the one before it.
“My office now!” he screamed.
What made the episode most troubling was the fact these two bespattered young men were also the president and vice-president of the student body.
“If this is your idea of student leadership you guys are through!” he said.
Standing in front of the school’s dean completely caked in mud was as humbling as it was surreal. If pressed, I could have rattled off a list of equally bizarre rooms I’d have placed myself in before this one.
The truth was, I’d never gotten into any semblance of trouble in my life.
Thankfully he had a sense of humor about it all. It was clearly a first for everyone involved. But by the time he quelled his laughter and shown some pity, the mud had dried.
“I have some good news and some bad news,” he said. “The bad news is, he wants you both off student council. The good news is you can go home early.”
I replayed the incident over and over in my head during the Thanksgiving holiday, dreading my return. I was sure he’d kick Alex and I off student government, maybe even putting us on some type of probation.
I can’t think of an opportune time to get tossed in the mud by your best friend then reprimanded by your principal, but the timing seemed especially unfavorable. I was in the thick of applying to colleges and wasn’t exactly testing through the roof on my SAT’s.
I needed all the extra help I could get. I can’t lose this, I remember thinking.
After the holidays, Alex and I were summoned into Father Ranalletti’s office. The walk felt like navigating down a tight rope — it was nerve-wrecking and yet somehow needed to be perfect.
It turned out, he’d had time to cool down. He even told us, not even begrudgingly I might add, we could stay on student council as long as we made a better effort to lead by example.
In other words, to do exactly the opposite of what we’d been doing.
A few days later I was called into Father Malo’s class. He was a remarkable teacher and his influence on my young life can still be felt today.
He taught a course called, Living and Dying and loved quoting the film Dead Poets Society, often using the movie as a way to inspire.
Looking back, I suspect what spoke to him most about the film was the message conveyed by English teacher John Keating, played by the late great Robin Williams.
Latin for “Seize the day.”
As Father Malo wrapped up a conference with a student, he turned to me and said, “Nick, I heard about what you and Alex did the other day. I want you to know I don’t condone it but I also don’t condemn it. Whatever it was that compelled you to do that — to play in the mud without a care, don’t ever lose that.”
He pointed straight to my heart for further emphasis.
What seemed like a genuine crisis in my young life ending up being a teachable moment only someone like Father Malo could illuminate.
I learned when it comes to matters of the heart one must be bold but not reckless, and protect their youthful spirit at all costs. One simply can’t afford to lose their sense of childish play, creativity, or commitment to live life independently, spiritedly, and unapologetically.
Life is simply too fleeting not to.
Remarkable what you can learn from a little scuffle in the mud.