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Confessions of a C-Student

I’m speaking with Ruth. We’re at a birthday celebration of a mutual friend. She tells me she didn't start college until she was 32-years-old, with two kids at home. Prior to that she had been a secretary, working to support her husband while he was getting his doctorate degree. Once he began teaching at the local university, she went back to school, and graduated with a teaching credential. She began teaching grammar school and discovered she was good with problem students. Eventually she found herself teaching a whole classroom of problem students, students no one else could deal with. “I made A-students out of them,” she says, a twinkle in her eyes. “I took special interest in them. I would call them a month before the school year began, to see how they were getting along, and to talk about expectations for the coming year. I didn’t give them homework. They did their homework in class. I made sure they studied hard for exams. They worked hard because I took interest in how well they did. They knew I cared about them, and that I expected them to give their best. They worked hard and got A’s—for me. They got A’s for me.”

I knew what she was saying was true. I was C-student. My best friend and I thought it wasn’t cool to do homework. We cruised through grammar school with C’s, except in the seventh grade. In the seventh grade I had a teacher who took a special interest in each one of us. Indeed, he saw the best in us, and we responded. He gave us additional work. He added Latin and Algebra to the curriculum, which was not then being taught in grammar school. I started getting A’s and B’s in the regular subjects, and an A in Latin. In the eighth grade, under different teachers, I reverted to my old habit of C’s.

Looking back, I realize it wasn’t so much about being cool as having bad study habits, which had started at an early age. I was held back a grade because I was having trouble reading and keeping up. My mother began tutoring me. She said, if you can read the King James Bible, you can read anything. She was right. After what amounted to home schooling over one summer, I never again had trouble reading. I still had poor study habits, however, except for a new interest—motor racing. I read magazine reports and features, checked books out of the library and read them cover to cover. By the time I was 16, I knew everything there was to know about international motor racing—the drivers, the cars, the sponsors, the circuits and in which country they were located. In a sense, I was compensating for what I was missing in school by not studying. Right or wrong, motor racing was my consuming interest, and eventually led to writing “The Ragged Edge.”

In high school, my habit of getting C’s continued, except on the rare occasion a teacher motivated my interest, in which case I responded with As and Bs. Entering college, I was told my C’s in high school would translate into D’s, unless I worked harder. It was true. After one semester I was put on academic probation, and the semester after that academic suspension. I was kicked out for underperforming, and so was my cool friend. Only he had no desire to return and was drafted into the army. I did have the desire and barely escaped being drafted. Someone suggested I take a class in journalism, because it was an easy A. I needed an easy A to boost my slumping GPA. The purpose of the class was putting out the weekly newspaper. After one semester, I was totally submerged in the process—writing, editing, layout, headline writing, even the grunt work of checking the galley proofs for errors. I was made page editor, and then editor-in-chief. Despite working 30 hours a week pumping gas and carrying 12 units, I led the class in getting the paper out on time every week. And it motivated me to becoming a better student (actually studying for exams—a novel experience).

Where I excelled was in writing term papers. Except for my very first paper I started getting A’s. About that first term paper . . . it was for an English class. I put off reading and writing until the last possible moment—the weekend before the paper was due. I cracked the books Friday night and began taking notes. By Saturday afternoon, I was totally absorbed in the subject—and surprised to be. Sunday night, when I sat down at the typewriter, I knew I had an A paper—if I could get it done on time. I worked all night and well into the morning. At eleven o’clock, I handed the paper in, feeling as if I’d climbed Mt. Everest. Triumph! Two days later, the paper was handed back with a D-minus scrawled on the title page. I was crushed.

A day or two later I met with my English professor. Tactlessly, I asked him if he’d read it. He was stung by the question, and forcefully assured me he had. I was given a D-minus, he said, because I hadn’t followed the rules. The table of contents, footnotes, and bibliography did not meet his standard. I knew that. I hadn’t had time, rushed as I was at the end. But these were small things. Didn’t content matter? Didn’t my analysis of the material, grammar, spelling, and punctuation count for something? Apparently not. My table of contents, footnotes, and bibliography did not meet his rigid standard, period. To this day, I don’t believe he did read my paper. But I learned a valuable lesson. Never again did I procrastinate. When it came to term papers, I did the research early, followed the format to the letter, spent time writing and polishing the text, and never again scored less than an A-minus.

In the fall of my senior year I took a course in Constitutional Law (Con Law I). It required a great deal of reading and legal analysis and was the hardest class I ever took. It was an eye-opening experience. I got so much out of the class I took Con Law II in the spring. The professor was gruff and distant, but passionate about the subject. The few times I met with him, however, we ended up talking more about football than the law. He didn’t assign textbooks. We read Supreme Court decisions directly from the law books in the college library. There weren’t always enough law books to go around, and I remember sometimes having to drive to a nearby law school to read the assigned cases. We read both the majority and the dissenting opinions. It was tedious, but enthralling, too. Both opinions cited applicable state and federal laws and various legal precedents, and concluded with impressive reasoning and logic. Mind you, both decisions referenced much of the same material, were equally persuasive in their reasoning, yet drew completely different conclusions.

In the end, the most important court decisions—the ones that have stood the test of time—have not been so much about citing law and precedent as about simple human decency and fair play. Some of the most appallingly inhumane decisions have been written by justices who adhered to the strict letter of the law. “The life of the law has not been logic,” wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “it has been experience.” Chief justice John Marshall, who established the legal precedent of judicial review, rarely cited law. He left that to others.

What I learned taking Con Law I and II is that nothing is what it appears to be on first blush. Discovering the truth is more than a mere examination of the facts and applying the law. The scale of justice is part science and part art. There’s no formula. If there were, Supreme Court justices would have nothing to debate and all court decisions would be unanimous. Arriving at a decision requires a judge to examine the human heart. Whenever I hear people disparage Supreme Court decisions, I tell them to go to the source—read the decisions. It will open your eyes.

I graduated from college but that didn’t stop my education. I had a long list of books to read, a list I had been compiling since my junior year. And it didn’t stop there, but continues to this day. For me, reading connects the dots. In speaking with Ruth over lunch, I was reminded that everyone possesses the ability to be an A-student. The spark is there, it’s the gift we’ve all been given. It just needs something or someone to ignite it. The fitness experts say that inside every fat person is a skinny person trying to get out. Ruth implied as much: inside every C-student is an A-student trying to get out.

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