Tuesday, July 25, 2006

103 weeks since, only days to go! PFEW, here I come!

While it's easy to go on about toddlers and ice cream, defining one's career, and even the comforting sameness of relationships, talking about today's topic has left me at a loss from day one.

How does one even begin to talk about a blink in time, where one is working her tail off, using one of her two precious vacation weeks per year, and spending the bulk of each day with a score of teenagers she's never met before?

How can I even start to explain the fact that, come Friday night, I'll be in a hotel hospitality suite greeting men and women I haven't seen since 2004... and it will be like I saw them yesterday?

I'm not sure it's possible, but I'm going to give it the old college try. ______________________________

This post was originally title "Payback," because that's what this whole odyssey began as: a chance to return a favor.

Once upon a time, as I mentioned once before, I was so shy that being called on to answer in class was agony. If the yearbook category existed, I would have been voted "Most Likey to Blush Herself to Death." (A bit un-weildy a title, though. Don't you think?)

But through two grand adventures, I found my voice and -- as many of you in Week III will say -- haven't stopped using it since.

One was the combined experience of college and The Setonian.
The other was Junior Achivement (JA).

JA was my first opportunity to be exactly what, exactly who, I wanted to be. The tenactious reporter and editor that I became in college emerged while I was sanding the raw edges of aluminum cookie sheets, bending metal rods into coat hangers, boxing Swedish fish, and running around trying to get my production crew to actually produce.

I didn't blush much at the JA meetings, I was too busy shouting at people to quit playing poker and start putting decals on the t-shirts.

Someone must have realized that I was more then bluster, because the second year there I found myself on a bus with roughly 20 other teens, barreling toward Bloomington, Indiana, for a seven-day leadership conference or something like that. It was the National Junior Achievement Conference (NAJAC), which welcomed roughly 1,000 teenages from around the nation. We were there to learn about business and leadership, to compete on a national level for titles we held regionally, and to see that there was more to the world then our hometowns.

To sixteen-year-old me, though, it was a chance to pretend to be cool. Leadership, back then, was easy enough: you simply had to look like you knew which end of the glue gun to use (we were making Christmas wreaths that year). Oh, yeah, and you had to be able to out-shout the others. As for business, well, I was going to be an English teacher! Who needs Drucker when you have Wordsworth?

I wasn't much more mature then the others who went, particularly on the bus; I was too much the teenager. What became known as "The Teddy Graham Incident" lived on for at least three years... and when the self-appointed 17-year-old chaperone discovered that his flashlight was missing, I was the first one he blamed... not that he could find it to prove that it was me!

(I was guilty, by the way. He kept shining it in people's faces. It needed to vanish.)

At NAJAC I made some of the best friends I will ever be fortunate enough to have. Some of them are reading this now, in fact. It doesn't matter that we haven't seen each other in years. There's a bond that wrinkles time and distance into nothing more then small inconvenient details. Time is relative. It was only last week that the 24 of us, myself and 23 people from everywhere but my hometown, sat under a tree and talked about what we did well. For many of us, that was a very foreign experience. Just three days ago, or so it seems, we listened to Dave Thomas talk about his life and what it was like to open his first restaurant. And last night we went to the President's Ball dressed in the finest clothing we owned and celebrated a week survived.

The speakers, both motivational and business-oriented, gave me topics to think about... ones I now use in my management classes at ICM, incidentally.

Two years later, I boarded the bus for the same trip for the third time. This time I was the official chaperone, the only college student on the bus, responsible for 20 teens that I only sort of knew. I'd learned, by then, that shouting wasn't leadership, and -- without flashlight :) -- managed to keep everyone intact for the entire trip to and from.

I went that third year and entered the talent show with intentions to solo. I made it to the final round before being cut. I had finished my years with JA by earning the region's top awards in entrepreneurship and production. I had scholarships. I had my voice.

And now, next week.

For the last seven years, I've been attending Pennsylvania Free Enterprise Week, a.k.a. PFEW, as a volunteer, working with teachers and students -- ostensibly to help them learn about free enterprise.

As the "Company Advisor," I get to work with "my" kids from Sunday afternoon to Friday night, taking them from a group of total strangers to, ideally, a cohesive team. We begin with Junk Night, where they make a product and commercial from broken toasters and old lawn chairs, literally from junk! And they do it all in about 45 minutes. It's here were we begin to see leaders emerge, where the ones who were quiet all day come up with fantastic ideas that win awards and bragging rights.

Monday brings the rules of the game -- how to play the computer simulation and how to create an advertising campaign. It's a grueling days filled with pages of notes and rules that seem to make little sense.

BizSim? They think to themselves or wail aloud. We're going to play twelve business quarters? What the heck is R & D? How does that impact my sales? If I want to be a price leader in my industy do I need to pump up my quality budget? What demographic group do we want to target with our ad campaign and how should we explain that in Friday's presentation to the stockholders? How are we going to get this all done by Friday morning?

And who is this adult who keeps answering our questions with questions?!

The kids have that "deer in the headlights" look for a while on Monday, but it vanishes after the first or second round of the simulation. By then, too, they have a CEO and other officers to help lead.

Come Tuesday morning, they're dividing themselves up and beginning to run their own business -- some do the simulation, others do the advertising. By Wednesday, we company advisors begin to become superfluous...

Saying that I do this each year to help students find their voices as I found mine sounds cliched and trite. It's true, believe me, but I have this feeling that I'm still getting more out of it then the students.

I'm leaving on Friday at, ideally, 2:05 p.m. Since I'm taking my trusty laptop, I'm going to challenge myself to blog the days to see if I can't give you a taste of Week III at Pennsylvania Free Enterprise Week.

PFEW, here I come!


Kirby Fling said...

"At NAJAC I made some of the best friends I will ever be fortunate enough to have. Some of them are reading this now, in fact."

Here is one right now!

Chantel said...

So glad you are back at PFEW, corrupting young minds and such! Congratulations. Can't wait to hear the stories when you get back.