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Left Coast / Right Coast: Graduation Day – Look to your right, to your left

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Mike Gold living the dream in the Pacific Northwest. Photo credit: Frank Hammer.
Mike Gold living the dream in the Pacific Northwest. Photo credit: Frank Hammer.

By Mike Gold, a retired entrepreneur living the dream in the Pacific Northwest.

Some of you, no doubt, will remember a speech something like the words in this week’s column heading, "Look to your right, to your left."

For those of you who don’t recall anything like this, it was my first welcome gathering at my undergraduate engineering school, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy New York. The then president of the school was welcoming the freshman class a few days before school started. His “welcoming speech” was anything but that.

What he said, in essence, was that the next four years were going to be hard. That they should be hard, and that we should expect nothing less than a four-year struggle. Hardly the words we all wanted to hear – the first time we were “separated” from our homes.

The president was simply telling us to look at the person to our right, then to our left, and that based upon past history, approximately 33% of the entering freshman class would either not graduate at all, or would not graduate with our original class.

Frankly, he scared the crap out of me. So, although I had worked hard in high school, I decided right then and there that I would not be included in that 33%. I bore down as hard as I possibly could.

The “common core” classes (Physics and Math) had exams on Saturday mornings – for the first part of the first semester. That way, everyone could take the exam at the same time. I studied and studied and, I got an 89 on our first “common” physics exam. In fact, it was among the higher grades in our freshman dorms. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute  had an athletic facility called the ’87 Gym, named after the year it was created (1887!). As I entered my dorm, one of my friends said, “We have the ’87 Gym, and here is the ’89 Gold.” I laughed, but felt very happy that I had not “flunked out” on our first exam.

I was thinking back on that event as we prepare to attend our granddaughter’s middle school graduation tonight. I don’t recall any ceremony for my public school or junior high school (what middle school was called back then) graduation. I suspect this is a result of that dreaded “political correctness” in which every student needs to be celebrated no matter what they’ve actually accomplished. The same idea in which every student that plays any school sport is given a trophy simply for participating.

I can say that I am not in agreement with this philosophy. As one grows up, I think one needs to be taught that accomplishment creates rewards. That, as Woody Allen says in Annie Hall, “80% of life is just showing up” is simply not real. 

What are the other lessons from Graduation Day? Well, another lesson is that you can’t “quit” your studying as you near the finish line. I had a college fraternity brother, who when he was about half way through his second semester of senior year, simply stopped doing all the work. Unfortunately, he flunked a couple of courses and did not graduate with his class. (It appears RPI’s President’s words were prophetic.)

It is exactly like the recent NBA Championship series between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers. No matter how good LeBron James was the team, to me, stopped playing defense about half way through the seventh game. It is a very old adage that defense wins championships, not offense (alone).

This example simply furthers the idea that accomplishment creates rewards, versus “just showing up” which often does not.

I like to quote one of the foremost experts on college life, Bluto from Animal House. Instead of putting his nose to the grindstone, Bluto always took the easy way out. One result is Dean Wormer kicked him out of school. As he finally realizes that he should have put more effort into his studies, he utters words of wisdom, Seven years of college down the drain.

So as we prepare to attend tonight’s festivities, I recall that initial college “welcoming speech.” I remember that my freshman year roommate was standing to my immediate left. In fact, he did graduate on time, but he wound up in the Air Force, and was shot down over Vietnam (in a B52 on a bombing raid). They didn’t recover his remains for over 50 years.

So I guess our President’s words did ring true, sort of. It’s just like John Lennon wrote in the Beatles famous song, Beautiful Boy. Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.

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