Wednesday, March 01, 2000

Students learn how to measure true success

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Three high school friends made a bet in 1962. Under a basketball backboard nailed to a telephone pole on Bluejay Drive, Ben Neiman, Marc Lewis and Carl Braeuer entered into a pact. The most successful guy in the year 2000 would buy dinner for the others.

        Thirty-eight years later, their wager came due this week. And the surprise winners are a bunch of students at their alma mater, Finneytown High School, who got to measure their own dreams against what the men had achieved.

        According to the terms of their bet, Ben, Marc and Carl would return to Bluejay Drive on Feb. 29, Leap Year Day, in the year 2000 to determine who was the most successful in life. Winner would buy dinner at the Maisonette.

        Carl, Class of '65, died in a car crash in 1981. But this week Ben, Class of '66, and Marc, Class of '65, made it back to their old street and their old school to settle the pact.

        The only catch, as it turns out, was how to define success. That's where members of Finneytown's Class of 2000 came in. The men asked them to assess their accomplishments and judge who was more successful.

        Earlier this month Ben and Marc submitted written responses to questions posed by students in teacher Kevin McHugh's senior English classes. Then on Monday afternoon they showed up in person for additional questions.

        I read Ben and Marc's responses and heard the classes grill the two men.

        From where I sat, the 23 seniors — just a few months away from stepping out into the world as adults — learned as much as anyone about what is really important in life.

Quest for success
        In order to judge the lives of Marc and Ben, the students had to develop criteria for success.

        To develop a yardstick with which to measure a life, the students had to look into themselves. They had to take the measure of their own values, hopes and dreams to begin to measure another person's.

        How often do young people get to do that in school?

        They asked probing questions about work as well as values and regrets (“Have you ever compromised your beliefs?”), accomplishments and family (“Are there members of your biological family who depend on you and upon whom you depend to provide emotional support and stability?”).

        The students found out that Ben and Marc are scholar-adventurers. Both men have climbed mountains in exotic locales and pursued careers in the behavioral sciences.

        Ben now lives in Woodstock and travels around the country conducting motivational seminars. Marc teaches psychology and has done ground-breaking research in schizophrenia at the University of Texas in Austin.

        Both men have done well financially, hit rock bottom and started over. They've endured divorces and started over in love as well. They've learned a lot about themselves along the way.

        Ben meditates and is fond of beginning sentences with “Buddha says. ...” Marc wants his tombstone to read: “He was a lucky man — everything he ever feared happened to him.”

        After working on the questions about values, one student, Kelly Ball, told me: “I've learned that there's no way I can compare my success to someone else. My success and my values are my own.”

        For months, like seniors everywhere, Mr. McHugh's students have been filling out college applications that ask: “What do you regard as your greatest accomplishment and why?”

        This question helped Melissa King put her accomplishments into perspective. The academic awards she has won pale in comparison to “making a difference in someone's life,” she said.

        To a student, the seniors expressed the belief that having lots of money doesn't automatically equal success. “You can have wealth, a great job and fame,” said Emily Walsh. “But without love, there's a hole in your life.”

        In the end, the students' evaluations declared a tie between Ben and Marc. Over the past 38 years, both men had built on their positive qualities and changed for the better. Both men made an effort to help others. Those are the qualities, the students concluded, that define success.

        Not a bad lesson to learn as a senior in high school. Or at any age.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.