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.
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.”
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.