Nov 22, 2019

Credits where credits are overdue

By Ed Goldman

California State University’s board of trustees is still gunning for me even though I got my bachelor’s degree from its Long Beach outpost in 1973. It’s suggesting that freshmen should have to take an additional math or science class to get admitted to one of its 23 campuses.

I took my last math class, Geometry I, in the ninth grade at Cecil B. DeMille junior high school, and while I probably could have gone much farther in my career—if I’d been forced to take, say Algebra II, Introduction to Probability, Unlikelihood of Probability or Calculus in Perpetuity—the fact remains that I went about as far in my career as I ever wanted. This wasn’t difficult to achieve since I never considered what I did was a career. I’ve been writing for pay since I was 19 years old and for only one reason: the fourth and fifth words of this sentence.
Why I was allowed to flee the entire field of math at such an early age, but not science, I’ll never know. I had to take biology classes in junior high, senior high and at the community college I attended (in the hope of hanging onto my high school girlfriend. This was a bad idea. She left me at the end of our first semester).

I always managed to avoid taking Chemistry, which had been an option. Even though Biology made me dissect three frogs I had no quarrel with over a five-year period, I think I might have found that preferable to enrolling in Chemistry and being required to recurrently dissect the universe.

What used to eat at me was how relentless the education sector seemed to be. In order to compete the eighth grade, I needed to take Biology (or Chemistry, but as we just learned, I ruled that out)—and not just for a semester but for the entire school year. At Long Beach City College, I wouldn’t receive my two-year associate of arts degree unless I completed three units of math or science. I once again opted for Biology, figuring the more often I took it, the more likely some of it, any of it would rub off on me.

In eighth grade, thanks to the miraculous concept of extra credit, I had actually managed to get an A in Biology. In 11th grade, that became a C+, again because of extra credit—though you could see a downward trend was developing. And sure enough, my day of reckoning arrived at Long Beach City College. I enrolled in a night course, thinking my powers of concentration might be enhanced by the inability to look around the room, or out the classroom lab’s window, to see people my own age frolicking, drinking soda and tossing Frisbees to golden retrievers that I believe were as required on campus as textbooks in those days. I was one of the younger students in my class since night courses were peopled mainly by grownups with real jobs during the day.

Unlike the extra-credit softies I’d had in the past, the community college Biology teacher arrived each evening and soon grew infuriated about something in the news. He was given to saying things like defining science fiction as “all fiction, no science.” He was ex-military and apparently didn’t believe his superiors when they told him that since he’d mustered out of the Air Force, he could now grow his hair more than a sixth of a pica long. (There are six picas in an inch. I know this not because I’ve been kidding you about being hopeless at math but because a “pica” used to be a standard journalism measurement. I’ll talk about what a “column inch” is—next, on Nova!)

I told him thanks but that “I worked very hard to get this D+ and am proud of it.”

When the Bio teacher met me I’m pretty sure he took an instant dislike. I had long hair, a beard and drove a small motorcycle. Midway through the semester, he almost ran me over with his Cadillac Eldorado as we both left the school parking lot one night after class. “Sorry, damn clutch stalled in second gear,” he said by way of explanation. His car was an automatic.

Once it became clear to him that the only thing I knew about Biology was how to spell it, I firmly believe he’d arrive at class each night pre-infuriated. I imagine I was, in his world view, one of “those damn dirty hippies” he’d ramble on about when explaining why the Aryan concept of not permitting just anyone to reproduce had some validity. “And I’m not remotely a Nazi,” he’d then say with a broad smile, expecting hearty chuckles from us. But he’d misread his audience: Some of those in the class had damn dirty hippies of their own at home who called them “Mom” and “Dad”(or sometimes, of course, regardless of gender, “Man”).

Anyway, I made it through the semester and managed to cadge a D+. That was enough to pass and to let me leave the community college and head up the hill to Cal State Long Beach. On the final day of class, as I was leaving, the teacher summoned me to his office. When I walked in, he put his arm around my shoulders—not exactly in a fatherly way but more in the manner you might use if you wanted to make sure the young cadet you’d mentored in basic training would make that leap out of the plane even though you’d substituted his parachute with a backpack from REI. (That’s not an anachronistic comment: while I haven’t, the store has been around since the mid-1930s.) He said, “You can re-take the class if you want a chance to pop your grade and your GPA.” I told him thanks but that “I worked very hard to get this D+ and am proud of it.” He looked genuinely gobsmacked (which would have been a great pun had he been in the U.S. Navy).

Final thought for today: If there’s a Heaven, as Actors Studio host James Lipton used to ask his guests, and I stand before those Pearly Gates, what do I want St. Peter to say to me? “Welcome, Ed! You can come in without taking three more units of Biology.”


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Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).