Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Part of the Grinnell Experience

Wanted to get a word in before the end of the month and our trip away...  Going to Grinnell, Iowa for a few days to reconnect with friends and colleagues at my alumni reunion.  20 years since I "graduated" there.  It's in quotes because I didn't want to use an asterisk.

The story of my graduation is a culmination of my childhood or teenhood.  I grew up that day.  In a hurry.

I wore the gown, after having traversed the multitudinous syllabi and reaching the apex of requirements.  At least, I thought I had paid the right people for the desired results...

I had plans to pull out my wallet once I walked across the stage to face then president of the college, Pamela Ferguson (did I spell that correctly?) and settle my tab.  "What do I owe you?" I would ask her in my best theatrical voice.

But I stammered, mentally.  I got worked up and worried.  Nervous.  So I stepped in front of her, holding my wallet, and stood there.  She smiled and handed me my diploma folder.  I fumbled with my wallet, then took the folder, juggling.  I think I even shook her hand (details are not very clear).

It was now time for me to exit the stage.  My moment had passed, and I had not taken full advantage of it.  This was to be a bit of a metaphor for my academic experience while at Grinnell.  I was confused-- I couldn't see where my classmates had gone to get off the stage.  Which way was I supposed to walk?  I didn't see stairs or a ramp or anything.

So I finally acted and zigged instead of zagging.  I walked over to the back of the platform, behind the backs of the faculty and other dignitaries sitting in their folding chairs on the stage, and jumped off. 

It was totally unrehearsed, just me getting through it, muddled mind and all.  I don't recall the reaction of the crowd.  I just remember what happened next.

I stepped into the shade of one of the great trees there on central campus and opened the diploma folder.  But there was no diploma in it.  Instead, there was a note explaining that I had not satisfied the requirements for my successful graduation.

A friend walked up to me, laughing and joking with me for jumping off the back of the stage.  He saw me open the folder and experience the let down.  He commiserated with me as my thoughts swirled.  I knew that I had come up short in my French class.  That had to be it.

Soon I was surrounded by family.  I was totally defeated.  I had failed!  All that work, all that money.  What a waste of time!  I was humiliated and despondent.  I was inconsolable.

In the next couple days I learned that I had actually flunked my French final and earned a "D" in the class.  I had been so distracted by the fact that I broke up with my girlfriend the night before the final that I had failed to study well.  But the work hadn't been done for the whole semester, really.  I hated that I had to take a language class as part of my major.  Wasn't studying English enough?  And I was so nervous and anxious in those classes, so much going on and me not able to figure out what it was.  I couldn't get over the hump and relax enough to learn.  So I avoided the classes.

I was also erroneously enlivened by the fact that I had worked on and given a good oral report.  I had figured that this was my ultimate weakness-- speaking-- as I had trouble speaking up in class in a language that I had been speaking all of my life.  It was shyness, yes, but also perhaps social anxiety.  I couldn't think straight when I didn't know for sure what was going on.  I'd get self-conscious and figure that I was too dumb to learn-- or I feared that such a truth would be exposed if I tried to talk in class.  My fears were too great to allow me to learn in a relaxed, natural fashion.  So I found ways to get by, and I found my own way off the stage.

I traversed an unbeaten path to get through my Grinnell Experience.  It was my path alone.  It led to me receiving the "Closest to Earning a Degree, but No Cigar" Award. 

I've since tried going back to school and taking a language class to satisfy the requirement.  But I haven't been successful.  I've started over with Spanish but flamed out when employment challenges got in the way.  I've tried auditing a Latin course at our local university, but you have to be an alum to register or audit a class, unless you go to summer school, where language classes aren't often offered there. 

So I haven't found my path to my degree.  At least, not yet.  I had enough credits to graduate;  I just needed a "C" where I received a "D" because the language requirement was considered to be part of my English major requirements.  So I missed my degree by a few percentage points.

If I had come from a family of litigators, I might have found a way to financially motivate Grinnell to working with me.  But as it stands, I don't have the piece of paper.  What I do have, though, is a great education and access to the network of friends and colleagues through the college.  There is a fellowship that exists between any- and everyone that has gone through Grinnell, and I'm proud to be a part of that.  I'm still walking the path for my steps alone, finding my way through my Grinnell Experience.

An education is not a piece of paper, anyway.  It's the journey and the mind set.  The Grinnell Experience.

1 comment:

Life Under Construction said...

Awesome and honest blog. I will tell you I had a similar experience on wondering whether my diploma was going to be in the sleeve...I was on the D/F borderline in Econ 101 with Paul Munyon. He had told me before commencement not to be too worried about starting grad school in the fall as I had planned.

You're in good company, though. Herbie Hancock left Grinnell just shy of his degree!