Leaving the Nest

I had participated in a number of aptitude tests while in school and despite scores that were off the charts my actual grades were average at best.  This gap in performance flummoxed many a teaching professional not to mention my parents.  I had an opportunity for a university scholarship but I failed to qualify for it by a mere half a percentage point.  My father though stepped in and was able to close the deal by persuading the school administrators to raise one of my marks.

“Here are your grade point averages. Mr. Kroger: two C’s, two D’s and an F. That’s a 1.2. Congratulations, Kroger. You’re at the top of the Delta pledge class. “

Dean Vernon Wormer in Animal House

There is a tendency to assume that university is one big party and that poor grades are the result of too much drinking and not enough study.  Part of that perception comes from the stories, mostly of which are culled from alcohol fueled shenanigans.  The reality was that these parties, Homecoming, Halloween, Christmas, the Superbowl, etc were parsed by many sober weeks.  The beer supplied was paid by compulsory residence fees, themselves financed by the money I made working at the record store.  Looking a little deeper reveals another possibility:

C – Economics  & English

D – Accounting & Business Management (I was a day late to a mid-term exam and got 0%)

F – Calculus

The second term was even worse as I failed to heed the warning signs and was quickly over my head.  The courses: Accounting, Economics, Finance, Statistics and my nemesis Calculus  were all very math heavy.  I once had a high school  teacher tell me the reason he liked math was the absence of subjective answers, you were right or wrong and that was it.   In high school I had survived by getting partial credit on test answers since I would usually start with the right formula but would inadvertently make an error when transcribing the various permutations of the equation.  In the multiple choice world of a university campus my weakness was exposed by the great winnower.  There is a reason that first year business courses are held in auditoriums with hundreds of students while 2nd year business courses are in classrooms that hold less than fifty people.   My performance was so bad I was kicked out of the university.

For obvious reason I didn’t want to go back home so I followed my buddy Mark Brown to the hinterlands of northwestern Ontario to go plant trees.  He had worked at the same company, Ball Forestry, the previous year and he explained that the process of tree planting involved dropping a few seeds on the ground then covering them with a shelter cone (basically a light plastic cup that twisted into the soil).  As luck would have it I joined the company at a time when they were exclusively planting bare root.  The actual 2ft saplings that were heavy, cumbersome and required a sizable hole in order to embed them into the earth.  Mark didn’t have any problems, being a running back on our university football team he had incredible strength and could pound a deep soil crater with a single swift kick of his boot.  The results from my feeble pecking that I did were blisters growing on my feet not trees sprouting from the ground.  After a week of hard labour I grossed $139, a company record.

It was a three day trip by bus and train back home, the cost of those tickets was $133 leaving just six dollars for food.  To make matters worse my connecting train was late so I missed the one that would have taken me home.  I had the option to take another train to a city 45 minutes away so I called my parents to ask if they would pick me up, they declined.  Stranded for the night in Toronto I found my way to a hostel and bartered by remaining train ticket for a nights rest.  The next morning I walked to three different banks and took out the last few dollars I had in each account, the amount less than what you could get from an ATM.  I purchased my ticket back, rode the train home and bummed enough change to pay the fare on the city bus.

Within days I was on the road again this time working for R.A. Free &  Associates, a low budget government subcontractor.  My first assignment was cleaning the ventilation ducts of a skyscraper, which I did by crawling through them in my underwear.  For the vertical shafts I hung suspended from a thin leather harness looped over a pipe and held by another kid.  The second assignment was at a juvenile reform school scraping the insulation off the ceiling of a swimming pool complex.   For the third act I was assigned with removing asbestos ceiling tiles from an office building.  Then without warning I was laid off.

I lived at home for the last bit of summer and earned a few dollars washing cars at Bob  & Jacks Auto Sales.  It was a forgettable experience for the most part except for the time I overheard one of the salesmen, humiliated by a dry spell, begging the owner for an advance.   What is notable is that the next week when the guys returned from the auction that same salesman was positively jubilant.  One of his cars that had been on the lot forever sold for better than his asking price.  Bolstered by this stroke of good luck he went on to sell three other cars that very week.  I wondered, was it the boost in his confidence that enabled him to make those extra sales or instead were both weeks reflective of his skills and the variance was just of function of probability?  It is impossible to know the truth as life has no rehearsals, only performances.

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