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 endured all I thought I could from High School, I still dreaded graduating.  Graduation was a black hole I couldn’t see through or past.  In January 1973 I was thrilled to have dodged a bullet (perhaps a real one) with the cancellation of the Vietnam War draft when I had a scary low draft number, but where was I going? How would I earn my living?  I had almost no idea and felt woefully ill equipped to answer the question.

Many friends were heading to nearby Santa Rosa Junior College.  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 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. Mr. Davis who queued me up for what became a life changing step.

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

With thanks to Mr. Davis, I began a great academic adventure.  Up to this point in life, I was only that moderately successful student who worked too hard for ‘Cs’ and ‘Bs’, rarely saw an ‘A’.

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 GE classes that I barely cared about.  To this day, I can’t think about how my life turned out without blessing Mr. Davis for the fork he put in my path and gave me such an amazing opportunity.

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 pain of rapid-fire math & circuit 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, surviving on 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.

We quickly hit a wall in the person of a new instructor.  He was not up to par.  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 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 nothing 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 office gal came by with our report cards.  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.  I was humbled to realize that 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 us.  Whatever we learned about FCC licensing, we taught ourselves.

However, 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. The insult of getting one here at the school I loved was so painful.

I considered asking for better consideration.  In those days, I was much more comfortable depending on my playful audaciousness, but nothing would change unless I acted 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 on the phone and gave me a exaggerated look of distrust from beneath his glasses.

He finished his call and turned to me to say in his over-bearing 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 previous students?  I paused long enough to rethink what I planned on saying but decided that it really was my best play.  I could explain and give details if asked, but short and sweet for Mr. Donovan was the surest 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 and I could see his thoughts processing.

Trying to use the correct balance in my voice between serious and playfully cocky, 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 while I listened to the second hand on his clock 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 you 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 does know what 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!  How did you…?”  His voice trailed off in 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 with 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 instructor 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

4 thoughts on “The Better Grade Incident”

  1. Good for you! I let a fail slide after perfect A in college, which I reckoned started with the newbie lecturer’s mismanagement of lesson plan – I withdrew from the series. The better plan was surely yours, working within the system (not speaking to the disrespect part). After all, we pay to get educated.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s a fascinating story, which you could name “the tale of two teachers.’ I’ve had a few dreadful souls like that, and as a teacher, have also watched some colleagues act very poorly with kids. I’ve even reported a couple of them. I’m glad you had the good teachers, too. Many of us are great examples of the arrogance of youth, right?

    Liked by 1 person

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