The Better Grade Incident

Photo Note: the photo above is my first “college” which was located on Van Ness in San Francisco.  The cars in front were not as old as those in the photo, but that was our building. Our electronic engineering classes were all upstairs and our labs were on the first floor – one nice tight package only two blocks north of Tommy’s Joynt.

Early in 1973, I had mixed feelings about graduating from Petaluma High School.  Having had all I thought I would ever need from High School, I still dreaded graduating.  Graduation, for me, was like a black hole.  I couldn’t see through or past it.  I had just dodged (literally) a bullet with the cancellation of the draft for the Vietnam War (for which I had a scary low draft number) but where was I going? How would I earn my living?  I had almost no answers and only worries.

Many of my friends were heading for nearby Santa Rosa JC, which to me, sounded like High School version 2.  Others were going to a real university, which I just did not see working for me.  Looking back and despite my academic fears, I might have done fine in “real college” but now we’ll never know because a wheelchair-bound savior from Petaluma High School intervened and became a pivot person in my life.

If you had any involvement with the PHS Work Experience office in the early 1970’s, you met the great man himself.  Ned Davis had already pulled me into lots of work experience gigs and we became friends.  I know it was his job and all, but he saw something in me that I did not see at time.  He saw both my passion for a certain field of study and my aptitude for it.  As part of his hunting for great opportunities for his students, he also sought out, I think just for me, a two-quarter scholarship from Heald College in San Francisco for their Electrical Engineering program.

This single step fully answered my next steps after graduation and diverted my whole later life down a path I might never have found on my own.  Heads College was a private vocational school that focused on two disciplines: business and electrical engineering (EE).  Mr. Davis knew me well and recognized that their EE diploma program would be a perfect fit for me.  I accepted it on his first call and on his recommendation alone.  I even forgave him for dropping me into another “school” situation that started less than a month after my graduation from PHS – which from anyone else would have been unthinkable.  I really wanted that summer break after graduation.

So, unlike all my friends who quickly settled into enjoying their summer break, I began catching the early morning Golden Gate Transit (GGT) bus for San Francisco each day to learn some serious theory and hands-on skill development with the Heald’s EE program.  I was thrilled!  Mr. Davis’ scholarship paid my tuition, but I had to buy my own books and slide rule.  You read that correct and I still have that old slide rule, but they did allow us to switch to one of the early portable calculators about half way through the program.

Thus I began a great academic adventure.  Up to this point in life, I was only a moderately successful student.  I was one of those who worked too hard for ‘Cs’ and ‘Bs’ and rarely saw an ‘A’.  I avoided the “tougher” classes because it took all I had to keep up with the moderate ones.

But, a new environment, surrounded by new people and teachers who were paid to help us succeed and a full focus on electrons, Ohm’s law, audio and digital signal processing changed me from that struggling C-B student into a nearly straight A student.  My study life became so much better once I was free from the curse of general education classes that I barely cared anything about…

At Heald, each quarter, we all took the same classes from the same one professor.  I still fondly recall my 3rd quarter professor, Mr. Donovan.  He worked us silly, but was there to make sure that we all succeeded.  We studied hard and he made sure each class had plenty of wise-cracking and goofing off to give us helpful mental breaks that broke up the pace of electronics math & theory.  We built study teams and poured ourselves into his teaching.  He made our work a rowdy joy.  When the dust settled at the end of the quarter – he awarded me my very first straight ‘As’ report card, and I knew I deserved it.  I had mastered everything he threw at us.

Tommys extI was so proud, I could have bought a round of beers for my peers two blocks away at Tommy’s Joynt, except that by now, my scholarship had run out and I was just another starving student, paying my way with a part time job.

I tried to never look back.  I now knew that I could produce top quality work and determined to continue to do so.  There was just one bump, and this is how it played out.

In our 5th quarter, something changed.  We actually had a second professor for one class.  Recall that this was an overall Electrical Engineering program and we were getting the full spectrum of EE related studies.  This quarter, they dropped us into an FCC license course.  This was and still is the certification given by the Federal Communication Commission certifying someone to operate various types of radio or television equipment.  This had never occurred to me, but “okay, I’m on an academic roll – so bring it on.”  As a group we dove into the material with our normal passion for success.

But in this class, we discovered something was terribly wrong.  This new instructor, was not up to par with all the others we had.  In fact, he was a disaster.  In the interest of pulling this bandage off quickly, he was a drunk who often taught us the same ill-thought-out lessons from some previous day in the same clothes he had worn the previous day and had apparently slept in.  He was progressively less-well bathed and increasingly surly as we began to act out our lack of respect for him.  In this, I take full responsibility for my conduct.  We, no scratch that – I verbally mocked him and took less and less interest in wasting my time in his class and instead began studying the text in preparation for his tests, which sometimes covered the right material.  I was rude and dismissive of his efforts.  I had become used to great professors and my own ability to work with them, and now demonstrated that I had little time to waste on this sad excuse for an instructor.  I am embarrassed now to admit how poorly I treated him and certainly did not lift a finger to help him succeed.

My buddies and I had grown pretty arrogant about the whole thing and looking back, I don’t know why I thought that the next part of this story would be any different, but his payback arrived, as you might expect, in my grade for his class.

I recall sitting in the lab with my study partner, talking over how happy we were to be stepping into our next quarter when the gal with our grades came by and handed them out.  I opened mine with little thought because, after all, I had become used to being a straight ‘A’ student by now.  Imagine my shock when I saw that old-brandy-breath have given me an ugly ‘D’…  My heart sank and my outrage rose as I turned to look at my best friend ready to say something that never actually made it out because I could see on his face that he too had received terrible news on his report card.

“You too?” I asked.  His face said all that was needed, but he actually exclaimed something I won’t repeat here and got up to compare with other friends.  He reported back to me later that many of us got what the drunk thought was our just rewards.  It seems that rather than grade our academics, he graded us on our conduct.  So, by that measure, I deserved some of that awful ‘D’.

Then my stewing started. I did not pay Heald to grade my conduct – which had been disrespectful.  But I had paid them to teach me FCC technologies and at this, the school and this instructor had failed me and pretty much everyone in the class.  Whatever we learned about FCC licensing, we taught ourselves.

By this time, my favorite professor, Mr. Donovan, had been promoted to Academic dean and had a glass walled office just off from our lab.  So the thought came to me – could I plead my situation to him?  He knew me.  He knew the quality of my work.  This grade was going to follow me to potential employers and a ‘D’…  Even in high school, I rarely got one of those, and the insult of getting one here at the school I loved was so unjust.

I could not bring myself to go and plead for better consideration.  In those days, I was much more comfortable depending on my playful audaciousness, so I gathered my courage and that embarrassment of a report card and marched into Mr. Donovan’s office and plopped down in the chair facing him.  He was just finishing up a phone call and gave me a mock look of distrust from beneath his glasses.

He finished his call and turned to me to say in his playful voice of authority, just like the days when he was my instructor all day – every day, “Okay Wilson – What do you want?”  Now, I’m thinking, does he know what just happened to a bunch of his students?  I paused long enough to rethink what I planned on doing, but decided, that it really was my best play.  I could explain and give details if needed, but short and sweet for Mr. Donovan was the shortest route to success, so I plunged on.

I placed my report card, face up before me and pushed it forward so he could easily read it all in one sweep.  As he processed a page full of familiar ‘As’ and that one hideous ‘D’, I answered him.  “See that ‘D’?”

His chin did this lock-and-load motion that we all knew so well and said, “Yes.  What of it?” His eyes didn’t leave my report card, as he continued to think through the story it told.

Trying to use the correct balance in my voice between slight playfulness reminiscent of how we related in his classes and a grave concern for how unfair that grade was, I answered, “It is supposed to be a ‘B’.”

In the silence that followed, he did that chin-thing again, just to let me sweat, before pulling out a pen and crossing out the ‘D’ and writing a big, clear, wonderfully refreshing B’ with his initials beside it.  “Okay,” he said.  “Stop by the registrar’s desk upstairs to get this recorded.  Now get out of here.”

I picked up my card, thanked him and noted a look in his face that told me he really did know all about what had gone on in that class.

When I returned from upstairs, I sat down with my friend looking much happier.  “Where did you run off to?” he asked.

“Our new academic dean wanted me to visit the registrar’s office to record this.” I smiled and showed him my report card.

“I’ll be damned Wilson!  How did you…?”  His voice trailed off in mock disgust and glorious envy and – we never saw that instructor again.

I was wise enough to not have asked for an ‘A’.  I was also wise enough not to ask if anyone else managed a grade correction.

When I later earned my bachelor’s degree at a real college, I never again disrespected a professor for any reason.  I’ve forgotten lots of things I learned at Heald, but I never forgot this lesson.

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Autobiographical fun in 10 minutes or less

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