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Matt Dunlap of Old Town is a certified internal auditor.
They were moments of mortal fear; being summoned to the blackboard, in front of the whole class, to resolve one of the inscrutable multiplication problems offered by our teacher. Math was a struggle for me in those days; being asked to solve what seemed to be the Riddle of the Sphinx in front of my classmates was a sure way to completely shut me down.
I would stand there, unsteadily, with the chalk in my trembling hand. The teacher might as well have asked me to calculate the orbit of a comet. I was convinced the whole class was laughing at me. At length, she would quietly excuse me, and in shame, I’d retreat to my desk and try to be invisible.
I have a lot to tell that young version of myself, and the other young people like him today.
One day, after a battery of standardized tests to ascertain where our school cadre was on our educational trajectory, Dean Bryer, the principal at Emerson Junior High School, stopped me in the hallway. He had seen my scores, which were apparently OK. He had a curious look on his face as we talked about the tests. Finally, he put his hand on my shoulder. “You can be anything you want,” he promised. I wasn’t so sure; but having someone believe in me left me with a remarkable impression.
Those moments came home again this last year. After being elected as Maine’s state auditor after nearly 25 years as a legislator and a high-voltage administrative career as secretary of state, I was faced with the vertical challenge of becoming certified as an auditor, as was required by law, within nine months. I connected with a tutor, acquired study guides, signed up for a financial accounting class, and went to work.
As has been chronicled in these pages, it wasn’t so simple. The study guides foreshadowed the challenge I faced: 1,088 pages of summary material. There’s a lot to becoming a certified auditor, as it turned out. When the clock hit zero on Oct. 1, I hadn’t passed all the exams; I had come close — but close isn’t certified. I had to vacate the position.
Failing is hard; but failing publicly is humiliating, and I felt the old shame from my days at the blackboard. What happened over the next few months was something I wasn’t at all prepared for.
Like Mr. Bryer had so long before, the incredibly smart people I worked with — many with multiple certifications — cheered me on. My wife and daughter completely supported me. Old political rivals reached out privately, telling me the stories of their own setbacks. “My first try at the bar exam was a disaster,” wrote one, now a prominent attorney. “You can do this. Don’t give up.” Everyone around me encouraged me. They weren’t laughing at me. Not at all. I was humbled by the people who believed in me, and it made me believe in myself.
I was determined to try again, and again, as many times as it took. I studied as hard as I ever had. Every once in a while, I’d see something electric in the financial news about a publicly traded company, and realize I understood every bit of technical jargon in the news piece. I was getting it.
Then, when I sat for the final exam, I didn’t freeze; I slowed down, took the tough questions apart and found the correct answers. When I finished, I had passed the certifying exam.
With young folks today within earshot, I’d like to stand behind that kid drowning in fear at the blackboard clutching that knob of chalk in his hand, and tell him what I know now, and wish I knew then: “Mr. Bryer is right. Try. Fail; Try again. Fail again. Keep trying, figure it out, and then carry that tool with you to solve the next puzzle. The only people paying attention are the people who care about you. You will get there, and when you do, those people will lift you on their shoulders, and you will soar. You can become anything.”