I was president of the freshman class in high school. Those who know me well are probably not surprised to hear this. My personality was the same back then, although my hair was longer and dark blonde. I was also 100 pounds with clothes on. I fought to create a school Ombudsman position and supported underclassman engagement in extracurricular activities such as Key Club, TV Production assignments, and Christian ministries. I strongly encouraged freshmen to attend sports games to cheer for the student-athletes. Even then, I loved leading a team and had great ideas for improving policy and culture at my high school.
I was definitely not out of ideas, and decided to run for reelection at the beginning of sophomore year. I excitedly planned my campaign platform, hung posters, and distributed flyers and stickers so classmates would remember to vote for me in the upcoming election.
Do you know what the word “sophomore” actually means? Many believe that the term got its start when two Greek words were combined: sophos (wisdom) and moros (foolishness). “Sophomore” literally means “wise fool”. This makes me laugh because it so effectively captures who I was at the time. I had great strengths: my dedication, enthusiasm, persistence, and an aptitude for motivating a team to get the job done. I had, however, a critical weakness: spelling. While preparing all of my campaign marketing materials, I spelled a critical word incorrectly, asking students to VOTE KELLY HAGEN: SOPHMORE CLASS PRESIDENT.
I first realized my mistake when I came out of an after school meeting the day my materials were hung. The Honors English teacher had taken a thick red Sharpie and edited my signs, drawing in the missing “o” with an arrow pointing out where it should have been. I was horrified. I started crying, working quickly to rip down all of the large signs hanging in the courtyard. Then, I walked the hallways, removing all my campaign posters.
I already knew I couldn’t spell--I always struggled in school and reading was my worst subject. In elementary school I was pulled out of class as often as twice per day to be given extra help. When I got a little older and found student government, it made me feel smart and successful. I discovered skills in my wheelhouse that others didn’t have, and using them was very validating. I always hid my weaknesses well until being “outed” by that huge red Sharpie.
I felt like a fraud. My colleagues thought I was smart and savvy, but now they would know I was nothing of the sort. I just didn’t see myself going forward with the campaign. I made calls to friends telling them I was dropping out of the race. Instead of holding my head high, owning my mistake, and moving forward with what I believed to be the best for my school and class, I QUIT.
Still the optimist, I continued with my leader mentality. A friend decided to run in my place, and I immediately got behind her. We ended up having a sign painting party in my driveway until “way too late for a school night”. She won the race, and I continued to hold other positions in student government throughout high school. I was voted Miss Mandarin High School and Most School Spirit at the end of senior year. It sure felt good to know that people still saw me as a school leader. My pride stung for weeks, but I didn’t let one painful experience define me or overshadow any future success. Although I didn’t choose politics as a career, the lessons I learned in those early leadership positions continue to serve me well as I run my own business.
I didn’t know it then, but this is called “bouncing back”, a concept popularized by business expert John Maxwell in his 2007 book Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success. Maxwell tells stories of Albert Einstein struggling in school, Vincent Van Gogh’s inability to sell a painting, or even Michael Jordan being cut from his high school basketball team sophomore year. Even Truett Cathy overcame tremendous adversity before turning his family restaurant at a local shopping mall into a soon-to-be-international brand icon. “The difference between average people and achieving people is their perception of and response to failure,” Maxwell writes.
Anyone can make an honest spelling mistake, but here is where I did something truly foolish. Running for sophomore class president without knowing how to spell “sophomore” may have made me look a bit silly, but dropping out made me feel terrible. Maybe I could’ve turned my spelling mistake into a joke to make my campaign unusually memorable. Admitting my weakness may have made me more relatable. Bouncing back from my mistake to win the race would have been difficult but not impossible. I’ll never know what could have happened. I’ve had some difficult losses as part of my journey, but no loss feels as bad as quitting.
Failure can be a great teacher, and my experience of “running from office” taught me to not give up too soon. Every time I’m tempted to quit something, my mind goes back to that day. It wasn’t the first time I quit something and it definitely wouldn’t be my last. Now, if I quit you know it was for a darn good reason.