It was the last day of school at Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School in Vancouver, BC.
Tracey McVicar wasn’t thinking about much in specific as she stood at her locker between classes. Grade 12 was over (go Bulldogs!), and the day was more about signing annuals and saying goodbye to friends than academics. She’d be heading to UBC in the fall.
She was standing at her locker and suddenly felt a startling presence over her. A guy in her graduating class had his hand on a shelf above her head –she felt trapped between him and her locker door.
(We’ll call him “Mark,” which isn’t his real name.)
Mark said, “I just want to tell you, Tracey McVicar, that you are going to amount to nothing, because you party too much.”
“I wasn’t even a huge partier!” Tracey says now, laughing as she recalls the story. “Maybe I was an organizer of good parties.”
I asked Tracey if she knew the guy personally. She said yes, although not well.
“I still know him, actually.”
Tracey and Mark were both going to UBC later that fall, although they were following different paths. He was going into commerce, and Tracey was going into the sciences.
After a week in the sciences program, Tracey decided to transfer into commerce, too. It was a large program of about 800 people, so the chances she would run into Mark were slim, but she carried with her an awareness that they had ended up in commerce together.
“And then, we were both going into finance,” Tracey says. “And there was a very hard portfolio management sub-program in finance to get into. He came up and said, ‘If you’re thinking of doing that, you’ll never get in.’”
“At first I was like, ‘Dude, what are you talking about?’”
But Tracey says the mean comment stuck with her — though not, perhaps, in the way Mark had intended.
Because Tracey hadn’t known the portfolio management program existed,Mark’s comment emboldened her to check it out. It certainly was an exclusive program – only six students had been accepted the prior year.
Tracey decided to apply anyway, in the fall of her second year at UBC.
That year, of the eighty students who submitted an application, thirty were invited to an interview, and ten were accepted.
She got in.
“And getting into that program changed everything. It got me an internship in investment research in Toronto, and I would have had no way to get that, otherwise. My family had no ties to the investment business, and in those days, connections were everything.”
Tracey says Mark’s bullying comments inspired her in those early days of forming the career that she’d excel so highly in.
“He made me so angry that I wanted to show him. And I thought, ‘What is it about me that makes you so mean?’”
Tracey says she had always had an idea, instilled by her parents from a young age, that “if people are mean to you, it’s not about you.” She says she remembers feeling this way even back in Grade 12. So in the moment of that first bullying comment, she says she knew better than to lash back.
“I think it bothered me, but I certainly didn’t show it. And it’s not productive to say, ‘No, you’re never going to amount to anything.’”
Tracey credits her parents with instilling in her a sense of confidence that allowed her to keep an unerringly positive outlook on herself. But, she says, they also made certain she and her brother never strayed into arrogance.
“I’d never reflected a lot on that, how they did that,” she says. “They didn’t coddle us, but we could feel from them that they thought we were amazing and capable of doing anything we set our sights on.”
Tracey says that in the outside world, her parents had her back, always, even if she went in directions that were unfamiliar to them. The messaging was:“Of course you can.”
Her father had dropped out of high school in grade ten and was later sent to hairdressing school, because that’s what his older sister had done. He later became a successful entrepreneur.
Tracey’s mom, who died 15 years ago, was her dad’s hairdressing schoolteacher.
“They had a wonderful marriage,” Tracey says. “They set the stage. How you feel your parents feel about you is really important when you go out into the world. If you think they don’t have your back, like, who can? But I always knew I could fail out there and come home.”
Tracey says these early lessons have helped her stay open to the paths life offers up.
“However you get there is how you get there,” Tracey says. “I don’t know if I would’ve known about that portfolio management program if not for that guy telling me I wouldn’t get in.”
And the benefits of the portfolio management program extended even beyond the career opportunities it afforded her: she’s been able to give back to the school and the program for over thirty years as a mentor, counsellor and donor, and she’s made countless lifelong friends among the program alumni and faculty.
Tracey says she is glad she was able to take what she could from that instance of being told she couldn’t do something, and turn it around into a moment of empowerment for herself.
“If you take what you can from it, and that pushes you forward, there’s a positive spin.”
Ten years after she’d graduated from UBC, after Tracey had begun work as an investment banker, moved to New York City to volunteer at a non-profit and then moved back to Vancouver, she had one more strange encounter with Mark.
It was a weekday evening, it was pouring rain—hey, it’s Vancouver—and Tracey was walking briskly back to her car after dinner.
Two men carrying umbrellas were in front of her.
She recognized Mark’s profile, and a moment later, she realized, unbelievably, that he was talking about her.
But he hadn’t seen her walking behind him.
As she pulled level with the two men at the next stoplight before crossing the street, she had no choice but to greet them.
“He looked terrified that I’d overheard him,” she says. “I don’t think he was trying to say terrible things. But I think this had been with him, he’d carried it with him.”
When Tracey and Mark see each other at events these days, she says, she finds herself thankful, and she carries no grudge against him.
If she were to say anything to him now, she’d say thank you for giving her that initial nudge into a career and a life that have been, by any measure, a wild success.
And let it be known: she still organizes a pretty good party, too.