This piece is dedicated to my friend, Eric Weight, who died in a biking accident yesterday in Bellingham, Washington.
Sam sent me a picture of his report card the other day. It's probably not called a report card anymore, but I like that old language and I'm sticking with it. It's like beauty parlor for me. Some things just sound good and make me happy when I say them.
Report card probably makes me happy because when I was a kid our dad gave us money when we brought our report card home. He had a system, as any engineer worth his slide rule would, whereby we were given a certain amount depending on where the grade fell in the dollar range, which I think went from zero to ten. It added up pretty nicely back in the late 70s and early 80s when I was in junior high and high school and we took a lot of classes each semester.
Sam was very proud of his grades. In his first year of college, he is doing well, academically. This was not always the case for Sam. Like most people, he wasn't a big fan of high school and he chose not to go directly to college; he was tired of sitting in classrooms and studying things that didn't hold his attention, so he worked for two years. He worked hard. The jobs he had were physically demanding and he made enough money to buy a car, to travel to Italy and to live on his own, for a while. He learned how to do his banking and how to grocery shop and how to make a doctor's appointment. Surprisingly, children are not born knowing how to do these things. It turns out that our tech-savvy offspring often need help with life's simple chores. "How do you hang a shower curtain?" Sam asked me one day during a phone call from Wal-Mart.
Sam learned how to live in this world in those two years, and now he's back in school and getting good grades and he's proud of himself.
The day before Sam sent me his report card, I received feedback on an exam I had taken and learned that I had gotten a 97. If my dad's grading system was still in place, I would have gotten ten bucks for that good grade. I was pleased. I did the Awesome Grade dance around the house. I shouted it out to Brett, who was appropriately proud.
And then I thought to myself, Jesus Christ, I'm working on my second master's degree, at a school of religion, and I still care about grades.
Daggonit. What is wrong with me? What is wrong with the world that we must quantify our learning? That we attach numbers to the things we study?
Sam has always been good at lots of things. He is physically gifted; he can do like three flips in the air off a trampoline. Sam has a way of moving through this world that I can only describe as kinesthetic poetry. He is intuitive and very funny. And he is kind and sincere. He has the gift for cutting through a lot of life's bullshit to get to the meat of a situation. I often turn to him for advice. If any of these things had ever been graded, Sam wouldn't have felt like a kind of a failure in his teen years.
I was not a fan of high school either. Fortunately my high school had a deal with nearby Skidmore College, so I finished early and took classes there. Then I went on to college for four years then university then more university. I cannot stop! I love learning, I love the thinking and the writing and the discourse. But grades? Come on. Shame on me for thinking that a 97 meant something important at the age of 51. Can I integrate what I learned into my life? Will it help me serve others in a more meaningful way? Will it make me a better person?
Our college friend, Eric, who was a beautiful light of this world, was hit by a car while riding his bike yesterday and he died. Eric had six kids and he was mightily proud of them. He was an attorney, but I knew from talks we had not long ago that he had an inkling of a dream of studying theology, maybe moving in a different direction vocationally, one day. This is not unusual for people at our stage of life, to experience a longing inside, to think more about the bigger questions. You go to college, you settle down, marriage, kids, work...and then life does that thing. People start dying, the world feels different. Why are we here? What's it all about? What is the point?
When Sam sent me his grades I told him I was very proud of him, but I also told him that I hope he is proud of himself. "I hope you are studying the things that matter to you and I hope you are satisfied with the work you are doing because what you do today will move you to where you want to go," I told him, "and also because this is your life, my love, and you should make it what you want it to be."
"One day" is today and the grades we get matter very little in the scheme of things in this life. There are many kinds of intelligence, most of which are not quantified. I am, of course, proud of Sam. I am proud of Sam for having known himself well enough to have chosen not to go to college right after high school. I am proud of Sam for having waited long enough to know what readiness felt like, so that when the time came he found the specific course of study at the specific school in just the right place for him. He is very happy living on the shores of Lake Tahoe, skiing as often as he can and meeting people from all over the world. He set himself up to get the grades he's getting today by taking his time, by falling down and picking himself up, by swimming upstream when all of his high school buddies were following the usual migration patterns. Good grades are nice. Good living, even better. Ten bucks to Sam for that. Amen.