I don’t think either of my parents ever told me to “study hard” or to “get good (or better) grades.” I never got bad grades or brilliant ones. I didn’t study hard or usually, at all. Back then I could remember pretty much everything I heard in class. Nor was I taking difficult courses. I tried physics. It was hilarious how bad I was. I dropped the course before failing it.

I needed one credit of physics or chemistry to get my Regents diploma, so I took a course called “The History of Physics.” It was taught by one of the two doctorates at our high school. Dr. Feiffer designed the course precisely for people like me — wordcentric smart kids who could get every item right on the verbal part of the S.A.T.s but screamed in terror at numbers. The entire course turned out to be a study of Stonehenge. Dr. Feiffer was was a huge fan of Stonehenge. It was a great course and probably the most fun I had in high school.

Jamaica High School (now a museum)

Getting into college would normally have required I take the the S.A.T.s. In my junior year, I took the P.S.A.T.s (Preliminary Scholastic Assessment Test). For the math portion, I took my best guess at answers. I was a good guesser and through some miracle, I scored a solid 675 on the math section. That was so much better than I expected, I avoided taking the S.A.T.s. I could have done better on the verbal (I wasn’t trying hard), but I doubted I’d ever do that well on the math portion.

Multiple choice can be a blessing to those with good luck and a sharp number 2 pencil.

I requested and got early admission to Hofstra based on my P.S.A.T.s, so I knew by the end of my junior year where I was going next. I also (entirely accidentally) won a National Merit Scholarship because the P.S.A.T.s were and still are the test for that scholarship. Who knew? Even with a scholarship, I didn’t see the point of trying to get into a school that was unlikely to want me.

College was easier than high school, or at least I thought it was. After surviving freshman year, I moved to studying things I enjoyed. Religious philosophy, Eastern religions, religious psychology, drama, radio production, and speech. I eventually got my B.A. in Speech and Drama, which wasn’t what I wanted. I was a little late in figuring out what I wanted. About a semester too late.

I wanted to major in religion. I had more than twenty credits in subjects in religion and social science which would have completed a major. I needed one more semester to fill in a few gaps, mainly economics and statistics.

I might have gotten it done, but religion was not something Hofstra offered. Even with recommendations from the heads of the sociology and philosophy departments, the school wouldn’t budge. I had all the credits I needed to graduate, so graduate I did. It was 1967. Flexibility was not yet on the agenda.

My philosophy professor (who was also the head of the department) was the professor who gave me my all-time favorite grade of A+/D. What?

It turned out to mean A+ for style, but D for not having actually read the books. I got the one guy who actually read our papers. All of them. Being forced to graduate was an odd experience. I had obtained what I thought was a useless B.A. with no future. Yet it became the launching pad for a future I never imagined.

Dr. Wekerle was head of the philosophy department. He was brilliant. Special. He required us to write papers of at least 10 pages several times each semester. He read every word we wrote. He also taught me to write for the least experienced reader in my audience, an idea that became the foundation for many books I wrote over the years. Aim for the least knowledgeable. Those who know the material will skip it, but those who don’t know it will be forever grateful. I passed that information on to many other writers over the years. It served all of us well.

Considering my complete lack of any sort of technical background, technical writing seemed a strange choice. Maybe not so strange. The first place I worked as an editor was for two technical photography magazines. I didn’t know the technical stuff, but I did know photography.

I’m not sure we choose our careers. We fall into them, rather like falling off a boat then realizing we’d better learn to swim fast.

I did my first stint of serious studying during six exhausting weeks at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel. Having convinced them to hire me, I next had to learn systems analysis as the group for whom I was working designed the first-ever database, DB1. It was ultimately bought by IBM and became the formative database for future databases. After I learned enough to know what I was doing, I wrote the first English-based computer query language called “QUIX.”

Weizmann Institution in Rehovot, Israel

A decade later, I spent another six weeks relearning systems analysis in the U.S. based on pointers rather than tables. Modern databases use tables and pointers in databases.

If I retain nothing else from my DB days, I can navigate and find almost anything on the Internet. After you design a query language, you can really navigate the hell out of a database. Except for Amazon where they have a knack for showing you what they think you should want to buy rather than what you asked for.

Amazon Prime delivery

Categories: #Photography, #Work, Education, Personal, Word Prompt

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10 replies

  1. “I’m not sure we choose our careers. We fall into them, rather like falling off a boat then realizing we’d better learn to swim fast.”

    This resonates. I have a college-freshman daughter who is lost about what she wants to do. While my kneejerk reaction is to worry, I tell myself the exact same thing – I didn’t know I was going to be a science writer when I was a freshman – in fact, I had no clue what I wanted to do. It took a bit of meandering, but I did fall into my career, and so will she.

    Been a silent follower of your blog. Broke the silence because this post resonates so much with me.


    • Thank you for speaking. I love hearing from people. Connecting with people is the BEST part of blogging.

      I was 16 when I started college — and I got into a program designed to get you out of school in three instead of four years. I was battered by an overload in my freshman year. After that, I recovered. I think I went through (very briefly) four alternate careers in about six years. I was just 30 when I started to get a grip on where I was going. I’d like to think, after all these years, that they loosened up on this stuff and are not jamming every new student to pick a major, now! You were supposed to pick a major the FIRST day you signed in. It was WAAAAAY too early.

      Science writer, tech writer — but you know, it’s good clean work with a pretty solid paycheck and it’s not a profession that really dies. It goes through more or less popular periods, but never disappears. I’m not at all unhappy at where I wound up. And it was fun getting there, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Amazing. You have done and seen and LIVED so much! I’m wildly envious. My favorite part though was “I’m not sure we choose our careers. We fall into them, rather like falling off a boat then realizing we’d better learn to swim fast.” Lordy, the wisdom in that. And here I was, all this time, thinking it was just me who didn’t have a really good clue what the hell to do NEXT. Thanks, Marilyn. You’re making this really weird day a LOT better. 🙂


    • I think few of us have a clear game plan. We may think we do, but very soon after we start college or work, we discover that the profession isn’t what we expected — or wanted. I know at least three lawyers who never practiced law, a professional cellist who, after becoming first cello for a major orchestra went back to school and is still an M.D. I know a lot of people who wanted to be doctors and wound up (respectively) audio engineers or developers. AND developers who ended up tech writers. I think trying to get kids to figure out what they want to do with their lives when they haven’t HAD a life tends to wind up with a lot of people who got a degree in, oh let’s say “Medieval French Poetry” only to realize there are no jobs. It’s not easy to get a tenure-track position at a university for anything at all, so what DO you do with a Masters or Doctorate in French Medieval Poetry? Many end up doing what I did. Tech writers, PR writers, sometimes translators of speech writers often have doctorates in obscure areas.

      When universities are hiring, they looking for people, they are looking to expand popular subjects (the ones that make money for them). Mathematics, engineering, computer science and development, all the sciences, law, and maybe — if you are able to focus on a minority area that’s one of the hot subjects of this decade — literature. Rarely are they looking for someone whose commitment is to a lifetime of searching for traces of King Arthur in the just-post Roman period in Britain.

      I started as a music major, decided I didn’t have the drive or talent to succeed (talk about COMPETITIVE) and dropped it with just ONE credit outstanding. Switched to Speech because I had terrible problems with speech and I needed to learn to talk without five kinds of lisps. That’s really how I fell into it. I had terrible speech problems, probably because of all those childhood years full of spiky braces. I had started working at the college radio station and it became very obvious I had a problem. So, I was improving MY speech. I had no long-term interest in the subject but a very strong short term determination to speak like a normal person.

      By the time I got to Senior year, I had actually completed the Speech major, but didn’t know it. I hadn’t counted the credits. THAT was when I discovered a passion for all things theological. I still retain a strong interest in it. Not having any serious personal commitment to any specific religion, I am constantly trying to figure out how some people (not the morons but serious thoughtful people) make the leap from non or disbeliever to believer. By all accounts, I’ve had more close calls with the other world than most people have and yet somehow, I’ve never been able to make the leap. Maybe it’s because no religion other than Buddhism — a faith that doesn’t hire professors, or at least not to my knowledge.

      There aren’t any jobs in religion unless you invent one and can enlist lots of followers. As it turns out, to get a paying job in religion, you have to choose one, preferably one which supports universities. I may have been fated to do exactly what I did: write books about technology. Then retire — and blog!


  3. What a grand building ! High school is actually difficult than college. I guess it happens with most of us during college life. We all have many impressions in mind when enrolling for a course and somewhere we realise that that was not the true calling. Life is all about experiments, miss few things, get few things and looking at your vast qualifications, you are one well – learned person who embraced everything with grace that came your way.


    • No one should have to pick a major in freshman year — especially not 16 year old freshmen. It simply took me three tries at a major until I accidentally completed one of them. I was so unready. I know many, MANY people who have degree in subjects they never use. I hope schools have changed this, but I don’t know.

      My high school WAS a grand building, but it was over-crowded and 100 years old. It also had a full size Olympic swimming pool, which I loved. Five stories. NO elevator. Completely inaccessible to disabled people. I’m glad they turned it into a museum. It deserved a good end.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I totally agree on this. One shouldn’t be pushed through a process just because it is the established norm in any sphere of life. New education policy, introduced last year in India seems to be promising like it gives flexibility to students to change subjects or stream in between and their year won’t be wasted. They can make their own combinations now, weren’t there before due to which students had to leave the subject they liked because they didn’t want to study the other one grouped with their choice of subject. Either you had to take or leave both. They can now discontinue the course if fall sick or in case of emergency and again pursue where they had left. The gap of absence will not reflect in his degree certificate. See many new things are included just to make the purpose of higher education more meaningful but everything boils down to the effective implementation of the NEP.


        • I’m pretty sure the story would have ended differently today. Most colleges are more than happy to keep a student an extra year, whether or not they’ve complete a major. If you want to keep paying tuition forever? They are good to go. But back then, they really pushed us to pick a major when many of us had no realistic idea of what professions were available — and the subsequent years would change everything.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. How interesting! We expect kids to know at such a young age what they want to be and do with their lives. It’s so funny to read that you hated maths and ended up in programming. It sounds like you have had some wonderful adventures. KL ❤️


    • I think a lot of it was being so young when I started college. Even at 19 when I had completed all my credits, I wasn’t ready yet. This is how you wind up with a degree in Law and discover you hate law.


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