Monday, June 22, 2009

Something happy

...though in a twisted way, the post right before this one could be classed as happy.

I missed posting this on Father's Day, but that's OK; part of it was that I was on the phone with my own dad. But I do want to share this story; it's one of my favorite memories from that time of my life and, I think, proof of Why My Dad Is Awesome:

I attended one of the "Public Ivy" universities. My dad taught at a much smaller school - it was kind of one step above a community college. I could have gone there for free but he encouraged me to go to the (expensive) "Public Ivy" because they had a much better biology department.

But to try to save some money - and also get done faster - I took a lot of the distribution courses and cognate courses over the summers from his school. They were free, and also they allowed me to get things out of the way.

One big one was Physics. Everyone who knew anything about majoring in science told me "Do not take physics and organic chemistry at the same time; it will make you crazy because of the workload."

So I decided to take Physics in the summer at my dad's school. Physics I one summer; Physics II the next.

Physics I went really well. The teacher was older - I think just a few semesters from retirement. He was a good teacher, and he was easygoing and had a good sense of humor. Also, the topics - vectors and electricity being two I remember - made sense to me and I did well in the class.

Physics II was the next year. This was the year my dad took early retirement, and he had hired me (once my class was out for the day) to help him for a couple hours each day to pack up his office, to pack up the stuff he had bought on grants that was his "personal" lab equipment he could take with him, and also to clean up/clear out the research labs so the new guy would have an easier time setting up. So every day after Physics I went over there, we worked for a while, ate lunch together, and then when he went home, I rode with him.

Well, the first day of Physics II, the prof walked in the room. He gave us all (it was a pretty big class, in one of those big auditorium like halls) the stink eye, and said:

"I know why you're here. You're here because you can't pass Physics during the regular semester, and you think it will be easier in the summer. It. Will. Not. Be. Easier."

Now, first off, that statement is full of fail in at least three ways:

1. My experience with summer students is generally the opposite. Students take summer classes because they want to graduate early. Or because they are working and know that a lighter class load in the fall makes life easier. Or because they can go for free at their dad's school and get the distribution courses out of the way.

2. Even if you believe that your students are slacker idiots, you don't SAY that to them. Because it might become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

3. Even if 1 and 2 don't matter, saying something like that to your students will make them hate you. I know I disliked the guy after he said that.

So anyway. He started in.

It was Optics. I am not so good at Optics. Optics confused me.

I tried my best, but when the first test rolled around, I knew I didn't really have it. (Also, the test was different from what I expected).

The next day in class, he handed the tests back. I earned a D. That was really hard, especially considering that I was a (mostly) A student. I guess lots of other people did, too, he proceeded to berate the class for being 'stupid' and for not studying and similar things.

He finally said, in frustration: "Okay. You need to go and get tutoring. The tutor for this class will be my wife. Tutoring sessions are $8 a half-hour."

That was twice the going rate for the graduate student tutors in other classes. And more than twice what I asked for when I tutored one of the neighbor kids in French.

And it irked me that he was hiring his WIFE - first, he makes a test that might just be a wee bit TOO hard, then he yells at us, then he tells us, "Pay my wife and she'll help you get a better grade.

(Later on, a couple of the other students went and complained to the dean. And he agreed that it was a conflict of interest and told the guy to stop and to hire a grad student instead. And the prof yelled at us for that).

Anyway. The class went on, but I didn't hear much of it. I was upset about the D, and also upset about the way he was treating us.

Walking across campus to my dad's building, I kept thinking about it. I couldn't drop the course, and I couldn't fail it. Doing either would mean I'd either have to take Physics II with organic in the fall, or I'd have to delay my graduation by another semester - neither of which seemed desirable. And I kept thinking about it, and worked myself up into a state. (I am good at doing that, even still).

By the time I walked into my dad's office, I was in tears. He asked me what was wrong. I think I got it out in one of those long, don't-take-a-breath-in-the-middle sentences that you sometimes do when you're crying and are afraid you're going to sob in the middle.

He looked at me for a moment.

Then he hugged me. Now, in my family we have never been real big huggers. We are kind of standoffish and shy, physically speaking. We love each other but we express it in different ways. So it wasn't like some of my friends where everyone was always grabbing everyone else and hugging them.

And then, he whispered in my ear (very quietly because there were other people in the office and I don't think he wanted them to hear):

"I'm sorry you got the asshole professor."

HAH hahahahahahaha.

That wasn't a word he commonly used - at least not around me. And it had two effects: first, it startled me a little and I stopped crying (as I said, not a word he commonly used). And second - and I realized this as the semester ground on - that was really the only appropriate descriptor for the guy.

My dad did know the professor - he hadn't said anything about him to me so as not to prejudice me - but later on I learned that he had served on committees with the guy and had a low opinion of him (seems the guy was the kind of person who needed to air every grievance he ever had, whether it was the right forum or not).

The biggest thing was that it made me feel validated. Like I wasn't just being a whiny baby complaining about the guy. Or that I wasn't "that student" who does poorly on an exam and cries, "But I get As in all my other classes, honest."

That it wasn't me, it was him.

And then, after that, my dad took me out to lunch. And we figured out a plan. One of his friends had a son who was an engineer with the Navy, and Art was on leave that summer. So we hired him to help me with optics (figuring if anyone could do it, a Navy engineer could). So Art helped me, I figured out what I needed to know, I worked hard, I did better on the tests.

I ultimately earned an A in the class. And I felt like I won. And I realize that the "asshole professor" probably never even cared that I earned an A. But it was important to me. And I like to think that it made my dad a little proud, too, that I fought my way back from that initial D.

So, a belated happy father's day to all the "good dads" out there.

No comments: