Life Lessons From Peter Butera

“Interacting with bad leadership can be just as formative and enlightening as being allowed to enact your own leadership.”

Peter Butera is a name that you probably have not heard before. He is an enterprising young man who recently graduated from Wyoming Area Secondary Center in Exeter, Pennsylvania, and his story holds great value to all those idealistic young men and women out there today.

Butera by any measure was a very successful student. First off, he was valedictorian of his graduating class—an accomplishment worth mentioning. He was also elected as the student body president for his class for all four years of high school, a clear statement to the respect that he held from his fellow students. He took this responsibility very seriously and attempted to make the school environment more appealing to the populace.

The problem was that his school principal, Jon Pollard, apparently would not support his ideas. Neither would the school board. For example, the school board was looking at mandating a dress code for the students. Butera sent around a petition and convinced students and parents alike to come and support their opposition to the dress code at the board meeting. It all amounted to nothing, as the school board voted for the dress code anyway.

Not dissuaded, Butera wanted to make some changes to the format of a school talent show. He wanted to be allowed to have skits making fun of some of the teachers—not in a hurtful manner, but in a satirical sense. However, as Albert Sciandra (a friend of Butera) said, “[The principal] was the one who kept shooting everything Peter wanted to do down.” Even though Butera kept going to the principal, rewriting the jokes that he wanted to tell, he was denied. According to Sciandra, the principal finally shut off the discussion with, “You’re not doing it because I said so.”

So, on graduation day, Butera decided he would make his feelings heard. He had given the school a copy of his speech already—one that they had approved. But instead of the ending he had shown the school, he decided to present an altered version.

“Despite some of the outstanding people in this school, a lack of real student government—and the authoritative nature that a few administrators and school members have—prevents students from developing as true leaders. Hopefully, this will change.”

This was as far as he got before the principal shut off the microphone. What he was going to conclude with was,

“Hopefully for the sake of future students, more people of authority within this school will prioritize the empowering of students as well as preparing them to further their educations. Because, at the end of the day, it is not what we have done as Wyoming Area students or athletes that will define our lives, but what we will go on to do as Wyoming Area alumni. And I hope that every one of my fellow classmates here today, as well as myself, will go on to do great things in this world and find true happiness and success.”

What is worth noting in the speech is that he never called out any individual or group specifically and instead took a very high road in his address. In fact, there is really nothing that I could see in this speech that would have been controversial or should have been deemed too extreme to share.

A video of the event was posted online and went viral. This led to Butera finishing his speech on Jimmy Kimmel’s show. Of course, the superintendent, Janet Serino, supported the decision to cut off the speech, as it had differed from the approved version. She also stated that she was reaching out to Butera to address his concerns.

So, what is the lesson learned here? Is it that the principal, board, and superintendent are overbearing super-tyrants who want to crush the happiness of the students and sabotage their dreams through tyranny and suppression of self-expression? Hardly. While I may or may not agree with the decisions that were made (as presented by the media), they are making the decisions they believe are best for the student population at large.

The real lesson here is twofold. First, I commend the young man for never giving up on his desires to change the policies and direction of the school. Too often in life, people get shut down and they simply give up. What is the point? After all, if you get told once, it will happen again. Butera did not react that way. He kept pushing back, and from all indications, he pushed back within the rules and boundaries that governed him. I can even understand his wanting to change his speech and give the altered version, especially as it was not offensive in any way.

But there lies the second, equally important lesson. Sometimes in life, no matter how right you may be or how much you may want change, you simply don’t have the power and authority to do anything about it. I understand that the students, and even some of the parents, didn’t like the dress code rule. I understand that the student body did not like the decisions about the talent show. However, it simply does not matter. You don’t have to like it, you simply have to comply.

Is that harsh? Maybe a little. Should the principal have been more understanding or open to change? Possibly, but that doesn’t matter in the big picture. Butera complained about not being allowed leadership and implied that this stifled his growth. I would disagree. Interacting with bad leadership can be just as formative and enlightening as being allowed to enact your own leadership.

I very clearly remember the worst leader I ever served under. This man was prone to angry outbursts and would attack anyone who questioned him. Worse yet, if something did not go according to plan, his power-reinforced temper tantrums would cause so much chaos that the situation would degrade even faster. At every turn, he would question my decisions and call me out in front of my peers. I hated every minute that I had to work with him. Yet once I had left the unit and reflected back, I realized just how much I had learned from his poor leadership. He taught me more about what not to do than I ever learned from any one leader.

Hopefully Butera himself understands these lessons. I understand that it is easier to get upset and point out people for not giving into your wants. I understand how easy it is to simply look at a problem from your perspective and forget that the view changes dramatically when seen from different angles. I also understand how righteous one feels about their causes when they are young and how absolute they are in their legitimacy.

Hopefully others can learn these lessons and apply them to their own lives. You are not always going to get what you want. Unfortunately, in life, this will be the norm.

This is the lesson that the youth need to learn.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Matthew Wadler

Matthew Wadler is a U.S. Army veteran. Matt served in the Army for 20 years as both enlisted and officer before retiring. His service includes time as Military Police, Field Artillery, Adjutant General, and Recruiting. His deployments include Somalia and two tours to Afghanistan. His formal education includes a master’s degree in HR Management. He is a strong supporter of the constitution and advocate for the military and veteran communities. Follow Matthew on Twitter @MatthewWadler.

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