Three days before Christmas this year, a direct message came through on my Facebook account. It was from a former student of mine from 12 years ago named Reed when I was concluding my last year as the Leadership Advisor at Buchanan High School.
I am sharing this with you below for a couple of reasons. One, as an educator, there is no better gift than a student, especially after time has passed, reaching out to you and acknowledging their educational experience. Two, his story is the ultimate affirmation for an educator. It’s not an affirmation about me as an educator, but what works in education. His story reminds us, in a very personal and detailed way, what matters in school. And that is that our mission is to help all students find a passion and purpose and then support them in pursuit of both.
Although this student likes to attribute his success and his unique journey to his experience with me, it’s really more about the work we were both involved in collaboratively for the greater good of our school and community. It was about the environment we both helped create where ideas, innovation and risk-taking were not only accepted, but rather the norm.
12 years ago, we were not discussing in such collective fashion what a 21st century and transformational education should look like as we are today. However, it’s good to know that it is something that has existed and can exist. It takes steadfast adults determined to allow and support students as they pursue relevant, real world work that impacts their campus and global communities.
Thank you Reed Zelezny for inspiring me. Thank you for reminding me that those of us that believe that students can dream and then execute amazing and meaningful endeavors do indeed change the world. Naturally, I am very proud of your success and your reflective appreciation. But I am also proud that you represent what is possible and what should be. All students need these opportunities and these environments. And then, all students can enjoy a lifetime of eternal successes.
Reed, thanks for the incredible Christmas gift. I am proud to have worked with you. I hope all educators have this experience.
Here is that Facebook message from Reed in its entirety:
Hope you’re well and enjoying some holiday time with the family.
Earlier in the year I saw that Stephanie Rusmin sent you a message about how much your Leadership class at Buchanan shaped her. I chatted with her about it briefly and told her that I’d been wanting to send a similar note your way, which she encouraged me to do. Now months later, as the year comes to a close I’m finally getting around to it!
I can echo a lot Stephanie’s sentiments, as I’m sure a lot of students who’ve taken your class would - particularly those that consider themselves introverted leaders. For example, in the interesting social and political climate we’re experiencing, I’m frequently reminded of leadership class events like Human Relations Day.
I also want to point out though that I took something very unique away from your class. One of the most important things I experienced in high school was your encouragement to coordinate and lead school activities which involved music and the arts, the biggest of which was probably the school CD that Kevin McDonald and I worked on. I was admittedly not fully engaged with sporting events, pep rallies, fashion shows etc. But I wanted to learn leadership skills, help people, and I loved music. Without your nudge I don’t think I would have harnessed an entrepreneurial spirit and realized that I could bring together my interests in such a unique way that created value for others.
From that experience I embarked on my college education with the idea of somehow mixing business, entrepreneurship, and the arts. I was a Business Entrepreneurship student at Cal Poly, and when it came time to do my required senior project I rejected the idea of taking the CPA exam or writing a business plan. Instead I left school for 6 months to write a thesis about how the internet and technology was impacting and helping independent musicians.
While wrapping up that project, I found myself in Silicon Valley and met the quirky young CEO of a cloud company who wanted to chat with me about digital distribution models for artists like Radiohead. A week later he threw a jack-of-all-trades job my way at his 40-person startup. It wasn’t the most glamorous way to start a career - I spent the first six months stocking fridges, putting together Ikea furniture, constantly calling repairmen as we outgrew our building, ordering food for lunches and dinners, etc.
Six years later, we’re a public company with 1400+ employees, offices around the world, and I’m the company’s Global Media Producer. I’ve had the opportunity to rub shoulders with leaders such as Gavin Newsom, Marc Benioff, Eric Schmidt, and Tim Cook, as well as artists such as One Republic, Weezer, Blink 182, and Jared Leto.
It isn’t all blissful - the bay area is unrealistically expensive, and surrounded by some of the brightest tech minds on the planet I constantly find myself in the trap of wondering “what I’m doing with my life”. But the older I get, the more grateful I become for this path I’ve found myself on and how your class set the stage for it.
And so 12 years after taking your Leadership class, and as an adult 29-year-old man, I want to say thank you most sincerely.
Wishing you all the best and I hope you have a great new year ahead of you! - Reed