Sunday, June 04, 2000

Most-likely-to-succeed girl finds life veers off expected course

        She was one of those kids you recall long after your yearbook disappears and the stone falls from your class ring. “Remember Tracy Masters?” you might say. “Wonder what she's doing now.”

        She was a most-likely-to.... Fill in the blank. Take your pick. She breezed through high school, the best of the brightest: Four-point-oh. Key Club, Spanish Club, yearbook staff. Soccer team, show choir.

        She was the valedictorian at Loveland High in 1989. If Tracy Masters had given a commencement speech, it would have sounded like this:

        “Work hard for your dreams. Don't quit. The future is unlimited if you dedicate yourself to your goals.”

        She would. She went to college, where she earned almost straight-A's again, and was awarded a fellowship to UC's College of Medicine, where she would study cell biology.

        “People expected me to do big things, and I really thought I would,” Tracy Masters Custer is saying.

        It is 11 years later. The valedictorian runs a cleaning service now. The aspiring cell biologist with the perfect grades and the crammed schedule dusts other people's furniture. She doesn't look back.

        “I enjoyed it all. I pushed myself. I was an overachiever, I guess,” she says. “I did it somewhat for me. But I did it for everyone else, too, for what I thought they expected me to do. I'm not like that anymore. I do what I want to do.”

        It is graduation time: Optimism's Super Bowl. If you ever want to feel good for a day, go to a high school or college commencement. Hopes and dreams flow like a fine cabernet. Everyone graduating from high school has a right to believe life is good and getting better.

        But the person you think you're going to be isn't always the person you become. If the lesson of graduation is not to limit your dreams, the lesson a decade later is to accept your dreams in a different form.

        Life bends and shapes us until we look at who we were in high school and barely recognize the face. Ten years later, the best you can hope for is that you still like the image.

        Tracy Masters the valedictorian is nowhere to be found now. She went to grad school at UC for nine months, then quit after bombing a test. She saw classmates spending their lives in the lab and studying and didn't want to be that.

        She thought, “Is this what I really want to do? Is this who I really want to be?” The answer was clear enough. “It's so hard to tell a kid at 20 years old to decide what they want to do the rest of their life,” she says.

        If you're lucky (or maybe if you're not), you don't graduate from high school or college wondering or looking inward. You commit. You strive. You advance. You do.

        Or maybe, if you're like Tracy Masters Custer, you explore, you question, you ask yourself what brings meaning to your life.

        “There are more important things than what you do for a living,” she says. “I know running a cleaning service sounds silly, from what my education was. But I set my own schedule. I do things now because I want to do them, not because they're expected of me.”

        She's running a 5K race this weekend. She still plays soccer. She's considering entering body-building contests. She might go back to school, get a teaching certificate and teach high school biology.

        She was someone who heard the applause. Someone who figured the world would bend to her optimism. That was 11 years ago, on a pretty May day not unlike the ones we've enjoyed recently. It was lifetimes ago.

        I asked her if she had any advice for the Class of 2000. “Follow your heart,” she said. “Don't feel you have to live up to what others expect. Take your time deciding what you want to do.”

        That, and this: Don't see dreams denied as failure. Life isn't scripted. Change isn't wrong. Do what makes you whole.

        I graduated from high school exactly 25 years ago. What I had in mind for myself, I don't recall. Nothing, probably. I just assumed I'd be OK. After a few years, I decided I wanted to work for the L.A. Times. When I was 25, I'd have crawled to Malibu for a job at the Times. A few years later, when they offered, I turned them down.

        Life is strange. But never dull.

Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.