My Aunt Margaret sent me a note today, that she has read all of my Blogs and found them “interesting.” However, she says, and this is why I am writing this, that I got a fact on Dan Rather wrong: he was not a World War II vet but slightly younger. She said it was more accurate to say that though he lived through the Great Depression, “he was a reporter in the late twentieth century and today.” She is right to be such a stickler–as she said, somebody is likely to play a “gotcha” on you if you get even a minor fact wrong and in a published work.
To be honest, though I believe such a mistake is unusual in me together, I am going to make a confession: I was a “B” student who didn’t clean up that GPA until late college. Even then, I didn’t do to well in grad school, although strangely teaching at the mental health club where I worked after grad school did wonders for my ability to read and write nonfiction. Yet I am going to explain what my trouble as a student was: I was too undisciplined. I remember one paper in college I wrote while my stepdad was dying. It would have been selfish not to visit him at the hospital, but I am convinced looking back I could have juggled my time outside of that better. What I did was wrote a long paper on Harry S. Truman. Now, the information was good. Yet here’s the sinker and why I only got a “B”: I didn’t use footnotes or endnotes. You can’t do that in academia. I’m just lucky my teacher was kind and gave me that good a grade (a B). True, I had read the main biographies of Harry S. Truman: David McCullough’s and Alonzo Hamby’s. I also did something I shouldn’t have: I used the play Give ’em Hell Harry, which though I believe is historically accurate.
Most of my gaffes weren’t that bad, but there were plenty of them. The papers that after eight of ten pages, I ran out of things to say. The countless papers in which I did not write outlines for and whose meandering arguments contained lots of good information but not really the power of a forceful premise or conclusion. The fact that it was not until college when I fully ironed out the occasional ungrammatical sentence, such as the run-on or the sentence fragment. And of course, that tragic flaw in any student was mine: a refusal, unless studying a foreign language, to really memorize vocabulary or maps. All I can say about my lackluster performance as a student (in the era of the “gentleman’s B”–or “lady’s B” as the case may be), is that if I thoroughly loved a subject I could study it to death, and learn a great deal–but that if I found it tedious or dull I was the worst student imaginable. I suffered for that “C” in Algebra, but it was one of the few “C”s that was not fully my own fault: I truly am not gifted in math. Ironically, there was however one Creative Writing Class I got in a “C” in for reasons I am embarrassed of till this day: I both turned in a paper that was too short and showed up late to the final.
So how did I change? Well, I sat down and talked to my favorite teacher. I asked her what it would take to write an “A” paper rather than a “B” paper. And she agreed to help me by looking at the paper I would finish before it was due at the end of the semester. I did all of my research for all of my papers that semester early. How do you do that? By starting the research right after getting your syllabus on the first day of class. For each day I worked on a different class, Monday through Friday. On Saturdays–Shabbat–I did all of my “readings” for the next week. And on Sunday I did all of the work that was not done on weekdays or Shabbat. By the end of the semester I got a 3.8 GPA for 5 classes.
Something helps that might surprise the reader. I learned Jewish work skills from Rabbi Aluf and the other Jews on Tuesday nights when I was at the synagogue learning about Judaism for the first time. True, the class was a little Orthodox and the rabbi was neither openminded nor unusually intelligent. Yet without knowing it, those Jews were my support system emotionally whom I also learned what hard work was from. I had, of course, heard–almost everyone has–that Jews are “hard working.” They were. Yet learning things like Kosher somehow translated into learning other skills. And though there were some in the group who did not seem particularly devout–a woman named Elaine comes to mind–when she was at her regular job she worked very hard. Too hard, almost. I sometimes wondered if she did anything fun in her spare time, or if she even had any. Well, I learned the Alefbeth (the Hebrew alphabet) and a few words of Hebrew, and I listened as the rabbi told stories from the Torah and midrash, with a mixture of his own family and travel stories. I did this amidst gossip and jokes. Don’t get me wrong: the poor man had his flaws (I was never convinced as an intellectual he went very deep), but he was a good friend at a time in my life when I needed one. Despite thoroughly not liking a few of the rabbis our synagogue we had afterwards, I feel like I owe the Jewish people a lot. They taught me how to be happy.
At Breakthrough teaching, with the now defunct Kelley Kincaid school worksheet books, I taught elementary math and grammar. Somehow this helped me. Not that I had any trouble with grammar anymore. Yet simply by working hard at teaching students what adverbs and adjectives were, I picked up on things I hadn’t noticed learning grade school and middle school writing and mathematics. By the time I finished I had no trouble writing non-fiction papers of my own. Isn’t ironic? That by teaching you can learn things you never noticed as a student.
I hope anyone reading this does not feel that I have outlined ways to learn which are as daunting as climbing the tall mountain of success. Yet remember: a journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.