Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Ode to Thanksgivings Past: Part Two

This is the second in my continuing reflections on the possible meanings of Thanksgivings past.

It was the fall of my junior year of college, 1963. After a near disastrous start two years before, I had become a very, very good student. But I was still terrified of math and science. So I learned from my really helpful academic advisor, that there was a course I could take that would qualify as a “laboratory science” but that would be less challenging than a traditional lab science. Oh, how wrong he was. The course? Principles of Food Preparation.

I was the only male in the class; with 29 women. You can imagine what kind of thoughts they had about me. One of our lab requirements was to bake a loaf of bread from scratch. So I made my attempt in my Wednesday lab class, one week before Thanksgiving. The yeast did not rise in its bowl. And it was declared DOA. My very demanding professor told me that if I wanted to pass the lab portion of the course I had to repeat the exercise and that the only option I had was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the very day before. So I had to reschedule my flight home, at additional expense to my parents. I went back to the lab, succeeded this time in baking a loaf; then went to the airport for a late night flight back to New York City on Thanksgiving Eve, carrying my little loaf of bread with me.

We ate that bread in celebratory communion that next day. And I reflected that that professor had taught me an important lesson about negative stereotyping about other disciplines (in this case Home Economics) and about high standards for exactitude. That loaf of life giving bread, was a symbol for me that I had come a long way from Thanksgiving of two years before, with my mid term grades of 3F’s, 2D’s and one A.

I went back to college the next week; came to finals; made the highest grade in the class on the final exam (that’s right, higher than all the women), but my poor lab performance yielded me a B for the course, my only B for that whole year. I was still very thankful.

-John N. Gardner

Monday, November 23, 2009

Can Your Thanksgivings Past Be Instructive for Your Students?

Thanksgiving has so many possible purposes and meanings. When I think of my life of great fortune to be a higher educator, my thoughts at Thanksgiving season naturally turn to some of my past Thanksgivings, for example, when I was a college student. I draw upon these occasionally for homilies for my students. I am going to do several blogs on this topic.

It was Thanksgiving 1961, the year the Berlin Wall went up and the first year of John Kennedy’s presidency. And it was the first year of John Gardner’s college experience. I was a seventeen year old “freshman”, at a beautiful, small, rural, liberal arts college, on the banks of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers in Marietta, Ohio. And oh was I homesick. And my mid term grades showed it: 3F’s, 2D’s and one A. What was the A in? You guessed it: PE, most challenging thing I did that fall: rowing crew. One of those D’s was in what I do now occasionally: public speaking.

Well, that year was 13 years before the US Senate amended the Privacy Act to permit colleges and universities NOT to send grades home to parents. As is rarely the case for me, I was ahead of my times. So my grades were mailed home to my parents. It was not an occasion for Thanksgiving, but it was an occasion for discussion with them, reflection, admonishment and more.

How are you going to use your Thanksgivings past for at least one homily that might lead at least one student to a small epiphany?

-John N. Gardner