His sixth day of high school was September 11th. He woke up early, turned on the news as he usually did, and saw the chaos of reports from New York that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. A split screen reported a plane hitting the pentagon. He watched, a rapt ninth grader, as the second plane hit.
Like students across the country, Gage went to school that day. His teachers, who he’d met less than a week before, welcomed him, reassured him and all his peers, and showed a “real, tangible concern” for all their kids.
Gage is now an energetic and affable adult, just past his tenth class reunion and filled with more positive stories about San Dieguito than I could put in a post, and yet, as we sat down to talk about life at San Dieguito in the early 2000s, he led with this story of 9/11. “Everybody cared so much,” he explained to me. “Teachers were willing to make honest emotional connections to their students,” and help make the horrible morning into a moving “introduction to the culture of San Dieguito.”
That San Dieguito spirit, defined in part by the connections between teachers and students, loomed large behind all our conversation. “When I got to college,” Gage told me, “I was surrounded by people who didn’t like their high school experiences. I loved mine.”
“We were all in it together,” he went on. “There were no nerds at San Dieguito because everybody was passionate about something. In middle school it wasn’t always popular to love something, or show you loved something, but at San Dieguito it was cool to like stuff.”
That attitude didn’t happen by accident. Gage looked back on his high school years and credited the teachers at the school who “shepherded students” and encouraged them to try new things. In Gage’s freshman year that meant Comedy Sportz. He was “terrible.” That didn’t stop him.
After summer Comedy Sportz camp, Gage returned to San Dieguito and struggled in practice not to be nervous. “By September I was lousy. By October just not good. By November I was okay, and then something clicked. I was in a game. People laughed. It was great.” He didn’t look back.
“I never felt pushed into anything I wasn’t comfortable with at San Dieguito, but I felt safe. I knew from watching my teachers and my peers that it was okay to open up and be vulnerable.”
That vulnerability translated into true connections between students as well, and Gage remembered a time when he was performing in a Chekov play in the San Dieguito Theater program. “I was friends with lots of guys from the baseball team, and one night they all came to see the show. Imagine that, the baseball team sitting there watching The Cherry Orchard. At the end of the night, when we were doing the curtain call, the whole team stood up and pulled open their shirts; they had painted the letters of my name across their chests.” He laughed at the memory. “A silly fusion of fun.”
And a not atypical San Dieguito story.
Gage talked about the influence that “distinct culture” had on him and how it carries on with his friends today. “I hear about a lot of kids whose high school friendships were defined by proximity, but at San Dieguito it was deeper than that.”
San Dieguito’s distinct culture, strong in times of adversity and always ready for a silly fusion of fun, continues today, and I asked Gage what advice he’d give one of our current students. His smile broadened. “These four years are perfectly suited to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks,” he said. “The best thing you can do is try everything. Everything. And do the things you love as hard as you can. Don’t be afraid to try things because you are bad at them. Be bad at them and one day you’ll be good at them.” He paused. “And don’t be afraid to talk with people about what you love.”
Gage sure did when we sat down together, and he left me inspired.