Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Fri, 3 Sept 1993

It was muggy, muggy, muggy this morning. Walking the streets today was like slogging through congealing jello. Anyway, I was thinking about two conversations I had yesterday. One was in the empty student union for morning coffee with four colleagues still roaming around the empty campus. The second was a telephone conversation with a "B+" student, a rising senior majoring in personnel management, who had received a very poor grade in my class. They were separate, but they were strikingly connected.

The first conversation centered at first around small talk about our summer classes. It didn't take long before we were bragging about our kids. When it came time for me, I told them how my 24 year old son, Michael, had just received a huge salary increase and promotion as the head of a newly formed department of cardiology in his DC-based medical consulting company with which he has been for the past 18 months.

"That's an unusual double major, bio-science and business," my biology colleague stated.

"What area in business did he major at Chapel Hill?" the professor from the management department asked.

"He didn't," I answered, knowing full well what was to follow. "He was a Russian Studies major."

"Well, he must have taken some management courses," returned my friend in a half-question.

"No," I answered nonchalantly, "the closest he came to business courses was when he took a couple of courses dealing with the economics of the Soviet Union."

"What kind of company would make him the head of a department without any training in management?" he asked with a tone of annoyance.

"A very successful one," I answered with a nod of exaggerated nonchalance.

"But," the biology professor jumped in, "he had to have a strong science background."

"No," I quietly answered. "Besides the astronomy course he took in his freshman year, only what he took in high school."

"No science or business? What, then, were his credentials for being hired and promoted," she asked.

"He was," I answered with an air of finality.

Later that afternoon, I received a call at my house from a student I'll call Tommy, who couldn't understand why he had received a "D" in the course. The gist of the hour-long conversation went something like this:

"I did all my reading," he argued.

"But did you study the material? Did you understand it?" I asked.

"I read it all," he kept replying.

"You didn't contribute to your triad. You were little more than a bump on a log, and you certainly didn't participate in the class discussions," I said.

"I'm a listener. I don't feel comfortable talking up," he retorted.

"I can understand that when it comes to the entire class. For some students, it takes time," I replied. "But, from your own evaluations and what the others in your triad wrote, you made no effort to participate in the triad. Remember, I stopped you on the lawn and we talked, twice."

"I came prepared," he said.

"For what?" I calmly asked. "You never said a word in class; you never looked interested. During the quizzes and when people were jumping up and down, roaming around and discussing the questions, I noticed that you just stayed in your seat. You just sat back and never contributed. You're going to be a senior. The others were mostly freshman. You have experience. Why didn't you take some leadership?"

"I'm not used to your type of course. I'm not good with talking," he lamely replied. "I'm kinda shy around people. I just like to sit back and take notes. I don't like being called on even in my other courses. But, I'm a good student. I get "As" and "Bs" on the tests."

"Did you read the syllabus?"

"Some, but not most of it. Just the calendar."

"But, didn't we discuss in the class the emphasis on class participation, attitude and effort, and the value I place on it? I even talked with you outside class and we made a commitment to each other (the same as I had made with Juwarna)."

"I don't think I believed you. I figured that was a bunch of rah, rah hot air. I was afraid of being wrong or askin' a stupid question and lookin' dumb."

"Maybe you were afraid to believe it?"

"I guess."

"What's your major?" I asked.

"Personnel Management," he answered to my surprise.

"How are you going to deal with people? How are they going to respect you and listen to you if you're uneasy around people?" I asked quietly with as much caring and understanding in my voice as I could muster. "Have you spoken to your adviser or anyone else about it?"

"No, you're the first one who asked. I know I gotta do something about it," he quietly replied. "I will."

"When?" I asked. "How are you going to handle an interview when you go out for your first job? What do you think you should do?"

"Well, once," he hesitantly replied in a way that stirred my juices of both sadness and anger "I told my adviser I thought I needed one of those speech courses to help me. But he told me that I didn't. He said my grades showed that I was a good student and didn't need to waste my time with that useless stuff and told me to use my electives in business courses. So, I did."

"Tommy, do you have any electives left?"

"Yes, but I'm taking some accounting course."

"Do you want to?"

"Not really."

"Do me a favor," I said, "I want you to sign up for a speech course with Dr. -----------or a drama course with Dr. ------------. I'll talk to either one of them and they'll work with you. Promise?"

"Yes. Are you going to change my grade and give me a C?"

"No. Do you really think you deserve one? Be honest with me; no bull shit."

"Not really, but I tried. Don't that count for something?

"Trying is lying, Tommy. Don't settle only for 'try.' Do!"

"But, I learned a lot."

"What do you mean by 'learning.'"

"Well, I memorized all that stuff just like I always done."

"Did you give it your best shot? Did you try to improve or just get by? Be honest."

"Not really."

"I don't think you did either. I wouldn't help you by giving you something you yourself know you don't deserve. You going to take that course?"

"I guess. I'll think on it."

I thought about Tommy all last night, wondering if he will take that drama course and challenge his inhibiting issues. I have my doubts. I wondered what I could have done better. Tommy will probably graduate with a 3. something or other. He will walk across the stage thinking he is educated, receive his diploma that says "with honors" thinking he is competent. What he won't know and what most of us do not care about is that he will have graduated only with what a colleague calls "book experience" and received only a "Bachelor of Grades."

My son, a UNC Johnston Scholar and an honors student, graduated cum lauda with a very high 3. something or other, with a Phi Beta Kappa key and with a few other UNC honor society memberships, and with all that other stuff we take too seriously. But, more importantly, he graduated with a "Bachelor of Experiences."

When I once asked him what he thought were his most formative moments at UNC (besides watching basketball), he replied running for president of his dorm and being defeated, later being president of his dorm, president of his resident area, being on the student council, helping develop the cultural exchange program between UNC and the University of Rostov in the Ukraine, challenging the Vice-Chancellor on a financial matter, and having been exposed to those few professors who cared to help him develop as a person. He was not impressed with his awards, grades, scholarships or honor memberships.

I once talked with one of his executives and asked why my son was hired without any business or science background.

"Michael was hired because of who he was, not because of what he did. His 'gifts' told us more about what he would do in the future. His school 'experience' which only told us what he had done in the past." We talk with our prospective employees. That's more important than some grade sheet or letter of recommendation. We want to know," he went on to say, "if he enjoys life, does he have a sense of humor, does he have a vision, can he relate to people outside the company, does he have other interests, does he take pride in his work, can he work with others respectfully, does he have the courage to made a decision, does he have imagination and creativity, does he have judgement and the confidence to use it, does he have critical thinking skills. We don't want 'yes men and women.' That's been too big a problem in the past."

What the executive said came back to me as I thought about those two conversations. It seems to me that the problem with book experience, and even expertise, is that it is static. It fits a person with a specific vocabulary; it gives a person specific answers to a specific set of problems which may or may not be pertinent to the future. My son's CEO didn't feel that grades, diplomas, and/or awards accurately indicated in themselves the presence of what he called 'gifts,' much less expertise and competency. What he wanted was not so much specific knowledge, but intellectual agility and strength of character to know how to ask the questions, move from idea to idea, stay ahead of issues, be creative and imaginative, to see what is yet to be, and be self-confident and courageous to act on those visions.

I don't think book experience is bad. If we measure such experience in terms of developing character, maturity or judgement, it's desirable. You need the information, as well as the ability to utilize it. But, for the likes of Tommy the problem is too much faith in specific information and total faith that grades and diplomas accurately indicate possession of such a bank of information. Life isn't a series of short-answer questions or memorized answers. In this respect, grades are not a substitute for even the slightest deficiency in acuity of judgement and for any shortcomings in "gifts."

I wonder how many Tommys are on this country's campuses, and how many of us perpetuate the Tommys by ignoring them as persons. It's a tragedy not to have helped Tommy help himself to develop the life skills he needs. The real tragedy, perhaps cruelty, is that the Tommys are almost DOA in life--dead on arrival. This wonderful and likeable young man, and too many others like him, are operating unaware of the constraining glass ceiling, the very low glass ceiling, that has been placed over him partly by us.

I hope Tommy takes the drama course. I believe in him and that he has potential that is yet untapped to crack that invisible ceiling and ultimately shatter it. Rest assured that I'm going to contact him at the beginning of next quarter and see if he did.

Make it a good day.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
Department of History                      /~\    /\ /\
Valdosta State University          /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
Valdosta, Georgia 31698           /   \__/     \/  /     /\ /~      \
                            /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\
                          -_~     /  "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\
                             _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -\____

Return to The Complete Random Thoughts of Louis Schmier
Return to the Random Thoughts of Louis Schmier
Return to Arbor Heights Elementary School