Monday, January 18, 2016

The Most Useful Thing

When I went away to college, going to college was the only goal. My father had been drafted during his senior year of high school and my mother had graduated 8th grade then gone to work to help to feed her family. They had remained behind in Germany when she'd married my father. Half of them were behind the Iron Curtain, mysterious shadows that really had nothing to do with my life other than knowing that my mother had left part of herself behind to come here. The half that had fled to the free West were nearly as mysterious, since at that time the Atlantic was still a barrier not nearly as easily crossed as it is now.

On this side of the Atlantic, in the family that was flesh and blood to me, my sister was the first ever to graduate from high school. She went briefly to art school in Pittsburgh, then joined the Army. Eventually she'd follow her art. But when I, six years behind her, crossed the stage at Berlin Brothersvalley High School and took my diploma in hand, there was another trail I had to blaze for my family. I had to graduate from college.

In those four years I took a lot of classes, from a bland public speaking class at which I excelled easily to an integral calculus class that I plugged away at until I was working problems aloud in my sleep. And it was in that integral calculus class that I learned the single must useful thing I learned in four years at Penn State.

Dr. Wells had a simple grading rule for exams. If you chose the right approach to the problem, you got a 50% score on that problem even if everything else you did was wrong. She had this grading rule, she told us, so that we would grasp fully that choosing the right approach was half of solving the problem.

I took that principle far past mathematics. It was the principle I used when I helped Doris to achieve the goals she had flailed at fruitlessly for ten years. It is, I think, the principle that makes me most useful and productive wherever I put my energies. And that's what I'm doing with this blog: looking for the right approach. It will bring me half way to the solution of how to put my capabilities and drive to the best possible use.

And here, almost as a post-script, are the diploma and transcript that I carried away in my hands. They've opened doors for me. But what I carried away in my head -- Dr. Wells' lesson about choosing the right approach -- is what I value most

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