The Power of Association – West Point Life Lesson #8
By the time I graduated from high school, I thought I was pretty cool stuff. I just finished a successful high school career where I was the Senior Class President, Captain of my Cross-Country and Track Teams, had a solid grade point average, and was involved in every school club imaginable from Thespians to Show Choir. I was involved in the community where I served on the Mayor’s City Youth Commission and the local Road Runners Club. I had tons of friends, drove a nice car, and was excited about my future as I prepared to head off to New York for the United States Military Academy at West Point. I felt like I could accomplish anything!
The institution at West Point was a challenge for me in the beginning, but my classmates proved to be an equal challenge for me as well. It was a humbling experience for me as I began to acclimate at the Academy and associate with my classmates. I soon learned that my fellow cadets were very ambitious and were accomplished human beings. Class President, sports accolades, community involvement were the norm for everyone I met in those first few months.
Everyone seemed smarter, faster, stronger, and just plain better than me at everything. I struggled to keep up in all facets of daily life. During physical training in the morning, I would complete a set just to find that fifteen other cadets finished before me. I would turn in an assignment early and discover that thirty other cadets had already turned theirs in and were much better than mine. I would develop a plan during a military exercise only to find that many of my classmates had a better plan already in place. I would show up to formation with my shoes polished, my uniform neatly arranged and feeling like I was looking sharp, but was singled out for looking the worst in my squad. I struggled to understand the concepts taught in class, while my classmates seemed to understand every concept and were ready to move on to the next lesson. My classmates were always moving, always achieving, and growing as individuals where I seemed like I was standing still, even regressing!
As I struggled, I realized that I needed to make a decision. I needed to adapt to my new environment or I was not going to survive. Everyone was moving at a faster pace than me and I was losing ground. Either I jump in the fast lane and begin to excel or I needed to take the exit ramp to another life. I decided that I wanted to be as much a part of the Academy as everyone else and that I deserved to be there, I just needed to figure out how to function effectively.
What I learned about my classmates during that time was that they were more than just intelligent, sharp, and ambitious cadets, but were also encouraging, supportive, and extremely helpful. I had no shortage of classmates willing to help me when I reached out for assistance. My roommate, Cadet James Cameron, showed me how to study more effectively, a fellow cadet, John Stull, who was a Desert Storm Gulf War veteran and former enlisted soldier, showed me how to polish my shoes and get my uniform together properly. I joined study groups, and went to the weight room with a recruited varsity football player, Cadet Lee Langford, who showed me how to make myself stronger in the right way. Slowly I began to fit in and felt like cadet life was beginning to slow down and I felt like I was getting into a groove with my fellow cadets.
One morning, while sitting in a class and listening to our professor finish up a lesson; he began to return a graded major project assignment back to everyone in the class. This assignment had taken weeks to complete and I was just happy that I completed it. The professor paused by my desk and announced to everyone in the class before he handed me my graded project. “Listen up everyone, Cadet Rheam set the example in this assignment and completed it in a way that I want you all to complete your assignments in the future. If I were you, I would consult with Cadet Rheam, because he is the example of how I expect your work to be completed.” He handed me my assignment and he moved on.
After class, I was surrounded by my classmates asking me what I did and asked for advice on how to duplicate my efforts. My professor’s words were validation for me. For the first time, I officially felt I belonged with my classmates, that I belonged at West Point, and that I knew I had the skills to eventually graduate.
I went on to have a successful experience at West Point and learned many life lessons that I still use today. I graduated a better individual because of what I gleaned from my classmates. It was tough for me to fit in when I first arrived because I had left the comforts of my home town, everything I knew and had built for 18 years.
Ultimately, what I learned is that in order to grow you have to be willing to step out and challenge yourself and that the people you associate with will have an immediate and long term impact on your future. If you want to be sharp, hang out with people sharper than you. At West Point, everyone seemed sharper than me, but eventually I became one of them, because of the power of association. I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to associate with such fine people back at the Academy and that I developed the long term friendships and relationships that I still enjoy today.