by Tina Blue
September 3, 2001
In 1989 I had in my English 101 class at the University of Kansas a twenty-four-year-old man named Randy, who had come to college to get a degree in biology, with the intention of eventually pursuing postgraduate degrees in herpetology. Randy was the most intensely committed, hard-working student I have every encountered. He graduated five years later with a 3.96 GPA and a $500 award as the biology department's outstanding senior. This year he completed his Ph.D. in herpetology at Berkeley.
When Randy first came to KU, he had a number of notable gaps in his education that desperately needed filling if he was to succeed in college. For example, he could not do long division, the multiplication tables were problematic for him, and he was even a bit shaky on addition and subtraction.
Reading and writing weren't his strong suits, either. He could express himself well enough in writing, though he had not yet mastered certain usage conventions, but he was a painfully slow writer, and an even slower reader.
But Randy was remarkably intelligent, and even more remarkably determined. During his first two years at KU he lived in a dorm, simply so he wouldn't have to spend time on cooking and housekeeping chores. Nor did he spend much time on sleep. Instead, he devoted that extra time to studying, which he did twenty hours a day!
He didn't try to have a social life, either, those first two years. All he did was study, study, study. He had to. How else could he cram twelve years' worth of education into just two?
Randy also had to "live poor." He'd had his own graphic art business for several years, and he was used to doing fairly well financially. But while studying at KU he had very little time left over to earn money, so he had to drastically reduce his clientele. One reason he studied so hard was that he needed to pretty much earn straight "A's," to lay the foundation for winning scholarship money so he could complete his undergraduate degree.
Ironically, Randy had graduated from high school with a full scholarship--tuition, books, room and board--to Wichita State University. Everything was paid for! This scholarship as awarded every year to the outstanding art student at his high school, and Randy had won it easily.
Unfortunately, because Randy had never bothered to learn anything during his years in public school, he was in no way prepared for college-level work. After the first three weeks of class, he just stopped going. As for his art classes, Randy quickly decided that there was nothing anyone in the art department could teach him that he didn't already know, so he quit going to those classes, too.
But he was eighteen years old, carefree and irresponsible, so he didn't bother going through all that annoying bureaucratic red tape to drop his classes. Besides, he wanted to hang on to the scholarship that was paying his room and board, at least until the end of that first semester. So instead of dropping out, Randy stayed enrolled and took an "F" in everything. Oh, well--easy come, easy go.
Then a few years later, at age twenty-one, Randy began to get frustrated over the lack of intellectual stimulation in his life. Partying all the time was starting to get old, and he also had begun to develop a passionate interest in studying snakes. He started to spend more and more of his time reading about his new interest, and less and less time socializing with people that he was finding increasingly shallow and boring.
When he was twenty-three, he decided that the only way he could hope to do the sort of research he wanted was to get a college degree, so he began to prepare himself for enrollment some time in the future. But not too far in the future, because he was beginning to feel that time was slipping away, and he needed to get going on his new path. He had to work a lot more, spend a lot less, and do something about his inadequate educational background, all within the one year he allotted himself before returning to school.
He also had to go through a complicated and rather embarrassing procedure to get his abysmal college record erased. With all those "F's" he had no chance of being admitted to KU.
One of the things he said in his petition to the Exceptions Committee at Wichita State was "I wish I had realized that a shallow, stupid eighteen-year-old was making decisions that were going to affect the rest of my life." This is also a point he made repeatedly in his conversations with me during his five years at KU. He couldn't get over the fact that he had wasted so much time and had thrown away so many incredible opportunities as a teenager.
He wasn't even just talking about the wasted scholarship, either. He had weaseled his way through high school--with a "B" average, yet!--by buttering up his teachers and manipulating the system. It had never occurred to him to actually do any of the work or to try to
learn anything. That's why he had to struggle so hard to catch up when he finally came to KU.
I know Randy's story because I was so impressed by this young man's intelligence, dedication, and desperation that I allowed him to recruit me as an academic mentor during his undergraduate years. I tutored him in several of the subjects he took here, and of course we became good friends in the time we spent working together.
Like most U.S. students, Randy as an adolescent had been incapable of appreciating the educational opportunities that were offered to him for free. Only later, when he was more mature--and paying through the nose for it himself--was he able to recognize the value of his education and to derive any real benefit from it. He lost many years and a lot of money simply because the "shallow, stupid" teenager he had been had foolishly closed all the doors that he wanted to walk through once he finally grew up.
Randy was able to reverse much of the damage--though never all of it--by devoting himself more single-mindedly to his studies than most students are ever capable of doing, even as adults. But he still felt frustration and regret over what he had wasted.
Once, during his first year here, he said he had spotted his high school English teacher in a store in Wichita. "I wanted to yell at her for giving me a 'B' without bothering to make me learn anything. Teachers should make us understand how important it is to get something out of our education! Why don't they tell us?"
I laughed at him and said, "Oh, I am quite sure they told you all the time. But I am equally sure that you were incapable of hearing what they were saying."
And that is precisely my point.
American students don't realize it, but they are offered an extraordinary gift--a free education. As public school students they have access to educational resources that ambitious young people in many countries would weep over, and yet they cannot see the value in it. They spend their time playing mindlessly, not even noticing that they are closing, often even locking, the doors that they will want to walk through in a few years.
Unfortunately, many of them continue closing doors, even as college students.
And believe me, from my own twenty-nine-year experience as a college instructor I know for a fact that most of them will not be able to pry those doors back open as Randy did.
In fact, in all my years of teaching, Randy is the only student I have ever encountered who has managed to correct enough of the damage done by his "stupid, shallow" teenaged self to acquire a real education.
Most students, if they keep closing those doors, will never find a way to get them open again.