People who know me in my adult life often act surprised when I tell them I was a screw-up in high school. I guess it is a good thing that most of them find that surprising. They didn’t know me my freshman and sophomore years, which I was, at best, a “C” student and, at worst, an “F” student.
I once got a zero on a biology test when my teacher caught me looking at my notes. Another time, in freshman English, I got a zero on a test because I somehow forgot to read A Raisin in the Sun. I was so panic-stricken during that test that I pretended to “forget” to turn it in at the end of class. Instead, I rushed into the school library, desperately searching for a paperback copy of A Raisin in the Sun so I could scribble down a few answers. Sadly, I never found the book and have not read it to this day.
During sophomore year, I found chemistry to be completely out of my realm of understanding. I somehow mustered a 70 average in chemistry for the year. Yes, I just barely escaped having to repeat my sophomore year.
The lousy grades were not a big deal with my parents because, for the most part, they didn’t know about them. For half of my freshman year and all of sophomore year, I went to a private school Greenville, South Carolina. We were new to town and my parents didn’t know any of my teachers or the other kids’ parents. It was easy for me to hide the fact that I was regularly racking up failing grades in Latin, chemistry and geometry. I covered it up in a way that would make Richard Nixon smile. Every eight weeks, when it was time to bring home another report card, I went to the school computer lab and invented my own report card, awarding myself A’s and B’s where there should have been C’s and D’s. I forged my parent’s signatures on the real report card, and they unquestioningly signed the version I gave them. They had no reason to doubt its authenticity because they had never actually seen a real report card from my school.
I felt horrible about this. I wanted to tell my parents the truth but, like Watergate, I guess things kind of spiraled out of control. I was not a complete monster. however. My dad and I had a deal in those days that, if all my grades were 85 or higher, he would help me get my own used car. I made sure that at least one of my doctored grades fell just shy of an 85 because getting a car based on a pack of lies was an ethical bridge that even I was unwilling to cross.
No cover-up lasts forever. Mine ended on a spring day in 1987, which I got a 1050 on my Pre-SAT. My mother was so elated by the score that she wanted to talk with the school dean about my future college prospects. The dean of our school was a lanky, bespectacled man named Dean Dingledine (pronounced: “Dingle-DEAN”). Because he was the dean, his full title was actually “Dean Dean Dingledine.”
“You know,” my mom said over dinner one summer night. “I really do need to set up a time to talk with Dean Dingledine about your SAT score, and what kinds of colleges you should apply to.”
I took a little extra time chewing my pizza. I knew the dean would find this conversation ridiculous, based on the grades I had been making. He might hand my mother a couple of brochures to a community college or a vo-tech school and suggest that we start there.
“Mom,” I finally said after a long swig from my glass of milk. “I need to tell you something about my grades.”
I told her everything. Well, most of everything. Mom kept the appointment with Dean Dean Dingledine anyway. The dean was incredulous when she handed him one of my forged documents.
“This doesn’t look anything like our report cards!” he said.
“Well, I’ve never seen your report cards,” Mom replied. “What does one look like?”
Even though it was summer, the dean and my mother agreed that the school should administer some form of punishment. So for one week in July, I reported each morning to the dean’s office for a chat, then spent the rest of the day pulling weeds and picking up rocks on the school softball fields. My first conversation with the dean was uncomfortable. This was the summer of Ollie North and the Iran-Contra hearings.
“Lying gets you nowhere,” Dean Dingledine explained. “Just look what happened with Watergate. And now we have Iran-Contra and it’s like, ‘Here we go again.'”
I nodded, not knowing what to say.
Later that month, my parents sent me to a therapist. She had me do a series of personality tests. One test suggested I might have a future in teaching. Another test wasn’t quite so positive. The therapist told my parents there was a strong likelihood that I was a sociopath. My parents laughed, thanked her for the analysis, and we never saw her again.
Later that summer we returned to my hometown of LaGrange, where my parents knew many of the teachers and most of the other parents. I decided to stop lying and misleading my parents or anyone else. I managed to turn my grades around and eventually attended the University of Missouri.
I don’t know what became of Dean Dingledine, but I have to thank him and my parents for the roles they played in turning my life around. Otherwise, who knows what I would be doing today?