The Better Grade Incident

Photo Note: the photo above is my first “college”.  Heald College was located on Van Ness in San Francisco.  Our electronic engineering classes were all upstairs and the labs were on the first floor where pedestrians could glance in and see us learning.

Having had all I thought I would ever need from High School, I dreaded graduating.  Graduation was like a black hole I couldn’t see through or past.  In 1973 I had just dodged  a bullet with the cancellation of the draft for the Vietnam War (was that literal enough for you?) when I had a scary low draft number, but where was I going? How would I earn my living?  I had almost no answers and felt woefully ill equipped to answer the question.

Many friends were heading to nearby Santa Rosa JC.  To me, this only sounded like High School part 2.  Others were going to a real university, which I just did not see working for me.

Navigating this next step seemed beyond my means and looking back now, I really need to sing the praise of three men who influenced this next step for me and set me on a path that I appreciate to this day.  They were:

  1. a wheelchair-bound work experience counselor from Petaluma High School
  2. an instructor from Heald College who worked us to exhaustion
  3. anther instructor from Heald College who was, perhaps the worse teacher ever

If you had any involvement with the Petaluma High Work Experience office in the early 1970’s, you met Ned Davis. He had 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 in myself.  He saw my passion for Electronics 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 me to a path I might never have found on my own.  Heald 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 .  I accepted it on his first call 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 bus for San Francisco each day to learn some serious theory and hands-on electrical engineering skills.  I was thrilled!  The 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 a portable calculator about half way through the program.

slide rule

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 made sure that we all succeeded.  We studied hard and he made sure each class had plenty of wise-cracking and goofing off to to ease the pace of raid-fire 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 then, my scholarship had run out and I was just another starving student, paying my way with part time jobs.

But now I knew that I could produce top quality work and determined to not look back.  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.  This quarter, they dropped us into an FCC license certification course.  The Federal Communication Commission still certifies people who want  to operate commercial radio or television equipment.  This career 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.

Quickly we discovered something terribly wrong.  This new instructor was not up to par.  To speak plainly, 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 previous days in the same clothes he had worn the previous day which had apparently been slept in.  He was progressively less-well bathed and increasingly surly as we began to act out our disrespect.  In this, I take full responsibility for my conduct.  We, no scratch that – “I” verbally mocked him and took less and less interest in his class and instead began studying the textbook in preparation for his tests.  I was rude and dismissive of his efforts.  I had become used to great professors and my own ability to work with them. I’m 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 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 our grades for his class.

D gradeI 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 report cards came by and handed them out.  I opened mine with little thought because 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 and study partner, 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.  I 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 dreaded asking 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, walked 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, “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. He was thinking 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 finished my argument, “It was supposed to be a ‘B’.”  I had previously decided against asking for an ‘A’ knowing I deserved something for my conduct.

In the silence that followed, he did that chin-thing again, just to let me sweat, before pulling out a pen, 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 to get this recorded.  Now get out of here.”

And that was it. No lecture, no “Let me make sure your understand certain things” discussion because he knew me well enough to know it was not needed. I picked up my card, thanked him and noted a wry smile on his face. He did know what had happened in that class.

When I returned to the lab, I sat down with my friend.  “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.  He and the others were pretty angry with that instructor and they talked me into writing a petition against him.  When we submitted it it had many signatures – and – we never saw him again.

I later earned my bachelor’s degree at a real college,  but I never again disrespected a professor for any reason.  I’ve forgotten lots of things I learned over the years but I never forgot these 3 men and the lessons I learned about basic respect.

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Gary photo n bio

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Autobiographical fun in 10 minutes or less

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