Tennis Camp to CEO: Learning Success

Eric Schwarz, Co-Founder and CEO of Citizen Schools, didn't always like school. In fact, he didn't like it at all during middle school. When I heard my boss say at our summer training sessions that at one point he didn’t even like school, I had to pause and make sure my ears weren’t clogged. This is the man who founded Citizen Schools, and he didn’t even like middle school? What?! His story that followed made me understand…

Let's go back a few years to 13-year-old Eric. It was August and the end of summer gloom was drawing near. He hated school at that point. One day while dreading going back, Eric got a letter from his camp councelor. It was a hand-written note that began, "Eric, your serve is wicked good."

13 year-old-Eric had gone to tennis camp that summer and now he had this badge of honor bragging about his talent. It was filled with praise and memories of a great summer experience.

That letter made young Eric feel good. He kept it in a wallet for a long time and read it often. After spending hours with his counselor, here was proof that his time paid off. He learned what a good backhand and serve felt like, and that muscle memory stayed with him.

In retrospect, it did something much bigger than that. It described an experience of developing the muscle memory of success. It wasn't just the physical memory of how to complete the perfect serve, but the memory of what success feels like. It was the feeling he hadn't gotten at school.

Young Eric never forgot that muscle memory, and it took him through summer jobs, internships and well into his adult career.

In his upcoming book, Eric Schwarz will tell stories like this one, reflecting on his childhood and the dazzling array of opportunities he had to flex his success muscles. As he pointed out in his recent response to David Brooks’ Opportunity Gap article, these types of opportunities that are available to middle class kids are widening the divide between families that have, and families that have not.  Struggling in middle school is common but, tennis camp, clubs and internships are not.

After hearing that story I saw how Citizen Schools gives kids the chance to develop that muscle memory of success while giving them more time at the end of school day. They develop social skills and social networks while experiencing multiple chances to be successful with successful adults.

Eric’s story made me remember that there was a time when I hated middle school too. But after joining the chorus, running track and acting in the school play, I left 8th grade loving school and loving life. I might not ever have a "wicked serve" in tennis, but I got to experience success and I liked how it felt. I carried that feeling with me through high school, college and to Citizen Schools where I watched our students stretch and grow that same muscle in their apprenticeships and academic support sessions.  Citizen Schools can help the 13-year-old Erics, and all students see what success feels like.

Now in August of 2012 the "back to school gloom" is here again. This semester you can be the one to help a child who might not like middle school stretch and grow those muscles. Teach an apprenticeship and show kids what makes you successful. There is still time to sign up for the fall semester and make a difference in closing the gap.