It’s What We Do Next

David Gartland

BOXING CHAMPION Mike Tyson famously said, “Everybody has plans until they get hit for the first time.”

I’ve only been punched in the face once in my life. It occurred in sixth grade. I was alone in the boys’ bathroom when a bully came in. He said something to me and didn’t like my response, so he attempted to kick me.

I saw this happening out of the corner of my eye and I lifted his leg up, which threw him off balance and he fell. He immediately got up and punched me in the cheek. I didn’t fall over. I just stood there, not sure what to do since I’d never been punched before. After thinking for perhaps five seconds, I turned, walked out of the bathroom and went back to my class.

By now, my cheek was red. My teacher saw this and asked what had happened. I told him I’d been punched, and said, “I didn’t want to make matters worse, so I didn’t respond.” He smiled and said, “I hope you get him after school.” I didn’t.

Sixth grade was my last year at the school, which I’d been attending since kindergarten. The next year, I’d be moving to the seventh grade at the junior high school.

When I attended elementary school, it was amid the post-war baby boom. Fathers had fought in World War II. Those who came home were ready to start careers, get married and have kids—lots of kids. This meant lots of school children all the same age. Every grade I attended had three classes of kids. It became apparent to me that one class was for the brilliant kids, one for the smart kids and one for the other kids. In elementary school, I was in the other kids’ class.

In junior high school, this caste system meant you’d be slotted into the college-bound group, the trade school group or the grocery-store-kind-of-career group. My family had all gone to college, though no one graduated. Where I was slotted would decide my destiny. Would I go to college or get a job at the Acme grocery store? To my surprise, at junior high, I was slotted into the college-bound group.

In New York State, they have two types of diplomas, a high school diploma and the Regents Diploma. To get the Regents Diploma, you needed to pass every Regents exam, which were standardized exams created by the state’s Board of Regents and administered in every school district in the state. Our teachers didn’t know what would be on the exam, but you could get supplemental information from independent companies that had samples of past exams. Passing these exams was a challenge.

The first exam was ninth grade algebra. This wasn’t easy for me. In fact, my parents received a letter from the school stating that it didn’t appear I would pass. This was particularly upsetting to my father. But I assured him I’d pass the Regents exam because, if you did, you’d automatically pass the course and be allowed to move on to the 10th grade math course.

I studied, took the exam and crossed my fingers. It took weeks for the results to be announced. I passed. Unfortunately, my father died that summer, before the results were announced, so he never knew I passed. I went on to pass all the math, science and English exams needed to earn both the Regents Diploma and a high school diploma.

College was the next logical step. My SAT scores weren’t the best, so I wasn’t a candidate for scholarships, nor likely to be accepted by many state or private colleges. My brother suggested that I attend the local community college, believing it was better to get the first two years under my belt while living at home.

Before accepting students, the local community college looked at whether applicants had passed standardized exams to gauge if they could handle the course load. The college did this because not all students came directly from high school. Some had GED certificates, some were just out of the Army—the Vietnam war was in full swing—and some had graduated high school many years earlier.

When I took the standardized exams, the results indicated I needed “remedial help” to have a successful college experience. Despite having earned my Regents Diploma, I had to take remedial English and trigonometry. I passed both, as well as all my other classes.

Now, my eye was on transferring my community college credits to a four-year college to earn my bachelor’s degree. Before I took that step, I needed to be sure I earned an associate’s degree, in case I was unsuccessful in obtaining my bachelor’s. That way, I’d at least have an AA degree, or associates in arts, if I had to look for a job.

Before the end of my final semester at the college, I was called into the guidance counselor’s office. He advised me that the remedial English class I was forced to take didn’t count as credit toward my AA diploma. That meant I’d leave without my AA degree. I’m not usually good at thinking on my feet, but this time was different. I said, “I earned a B in every English course I took here. What makes you think I wouldn’t pass the next English course I’d take?” He thought for a minute and said, “You’re right. We’ll give you credit for completing the English requirement.”

We sometimes get punched in the face, figuratively speaking. It’s what we do next that determines our success or failure. That’s true in our careers, in investing and while we’re at college—and even when we’re in the elementary school bathroom.

David Gartland was born and raised on Long Island, New York, and has lived in central New Jersey since 1987. He earned a bachelor’s degree in math from the State University of New York at Cortland and holds various professional insurance designations. Dave’s property and casualty insurance career with different companies lasted 42 years. He’s been married 36 years, and has a son with special needs. Dave has identified three areas of interest that he focuses on to enjoy retirement: exploring, learning and accomplishing. Pursuing any one of these leads to contentment. Check out Dave’s earlier articles.

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