My Education, Part 1

Robert Laird. The first one was inspired. The second was dutiful and brave. The third was just me. I know longer affect the numeral.

Robert Laird. The first one was inspired. The second was dutiful and brave. The third was just me. I no longer affect the numeral.

Yeah, okay. My education. Latin and French from fifth grade on. Entered Mercersburg Academy at 13, offered the option of enrolling as a sophomore, turned it down due to tender age, which would have graduated me at 15, then I was first in my class for four years and got AP credit in English, European History, American History, French, and Latin. And an Independent study in the French symbolist poets. A year of Greek. Editor of the school newspaper, editor of the literary magazine, member of a newly organized School Council I had helped design (the Sixties, you know), and just barely a varsity letter in fencing. Offered a Yale National Scholarship. Turned it down for a Harvard Freshman Scholarship because… No money in either case what with White Privilege and all, and, of course, Harvard, who offered me sophomore standing. Big bucks saved there, except for the emotional toll of being younger than everyone at everything, especially girls. Until they zip you out of the place before you even know what happened to you.

I was a double major in English literature and history. In my three years there, I studied the whole of English lit in a one year immersion course, a full year of Shakespeare, modern poetry, Samuel Johnson, American lit, as well as Art History, the Impressionists, and Chinese, Japanese, German, and Roman history. And physics. And one more Latin course, lyric poets, three years after I’d stopped studying Latin. Graduated at 19. Cum laude General Studies because my English thesis offended the rising feminist wave. I dared to compare my own two favorite novelists of the 20th century, Virginia Woolf and F. Scott Fitzgerald, for the purpose of demonstrating a profound if not unequal difference in consciousness between the sexes. Wasn’t popular with the three female graders.

Took a year off to intern as a paralegal (for a Harvard lawyer who thought it was a typo I’d written 80 word essays in my applications to law school at Columbia, Georgetown, and somewhere else, maybe Virginia), and then decided to go to graduate business school at Cornell. Studied statistics, quantitative operations methods, computer programming, matrix algebra (i.e., linear programming), micro and macro economics, business policy in the Harvard B-school case study format, business law, personnel management, securities management, accounting, intermediate accounting, and advanced accounting.

In my last semester I decided not to get my MBA because I very much feared I would wind up a CPA. At the time I was in the top third of my class. I just didn’t want to do it.

So I took some time to think about it. Still wanted to be a writer. Signed up with a hometown newspaper during the bicentennial year and edited and wrote for a monthly publication about my County’s history in the Revolution, The Way It Used to Be. Then they wanted a reenactment of the epochal 1778 Skirmish at Quinton’s Bridge. Wrote all the copy, took all the photos (with a very nice camera btw) for a special edition of The Way It Used to Be, and arranged both for the creation of text road signs demarking the routes of colonials and Brits (still standing btw), and signed up and orchestrated the roles of the reenactment groups. Also did a full 2-page spread in the paper filling in the bits of the history, like the uniforms, weapons, soldier profiles, and legendary tales of the events. Which were exciting. Think Mad Anthony Wayne. We saved his ass from an elite Brit unit, the Queen’s Rangers. Salem boy with an axe chopped down the bridge under continuous enemy fire.

Even took a shot at investigative reporting when I realized state bureaucrats had effectively vandalized an important historic site by installing air conditioning units in the attic where British soldiers had massacred Quakers hiding from their vengeance. Saw it as a kid. Bloodstains on the floor. Then I saw those big Carrier units. Bloodstains obliterated. Never got any answers. Never got fired or praised either. They ran it on the front page. My only reward.

Then the Bicentennial went away and I found myself putting out a lame publication with nothing much left to say. Why I went kind of nuts. Had an old Underwood Standard typewriter. Told myself it was finally time to learn how to write. Gave up all pretense of doing my actual job and spent ten hours a day typing and retyping and retyping the same fictional paragraphs with the most minor of changes. [Committed a grievous sin the midst of all this. A local professor had written a not very good paperback book about the founding of the colony in the 17th century. I was supposed to process orders. I was egregiously negligent about doing so. He complained. I blew him off. Because I was learning how to write the right way.]

Lessons in all of this. Education in all of this. Organizing Bicentennial events taught me how to make things happen, even in a sleepy town where people think someone else is always going to do the work. Learning how to write was also the process of learning how to work, hard, which doesn’t come as easily to people for whom so much has come so easily on the intellectual front. I went through a period where I looked up every single word I wrote in the dictionary. Every single one.

Finally, I learned the hardest lesson of all. Screwing up, disappointing people who are only tangentially dependent on you, is a sin. I decided it was time for me to grow up.

Took a job as a proofreader at a nuclear engineering firm.

Another key nugget or two of education. Learned how to rewrite technical letters by Russian, Indian, and clumsy Americans so that they came in and asked, “How did you know what I was trying to say?” I had an intuitive knack for it.

Why, I suppose, my boss at the time got tired of proofreaders changing each other’s comma choices back and forth. She directed me to prepare a “Comma Seminar,” explaining once and for all what the rules of commas were.

Sometimes, you see, being asked to teach is its own process of education. That single assignment completed my education in the most important basics of writing.

I moved on again. Joined Datapro Research Corporation as an associate editor of the Word Processing and Office Information Systems services. The hiring editor scoffed at my business school programming course and said, “We always have two paths in the road here. We can hire computer jocks who can be taught how to write. Or we can hire liberal arts majors who can be taught about computers.” She grinned. “I know which one you are.”

Didn’t take long before I was packed off to weeklong seminars called, creatively, Data Communications I and Data Communications II, where we learned some nuts and bolts about packet switching, and what modems do, and how it results in characters on somebody’s screen.

That wasn’t the end of it, though. Two more key parts of the process. In those days, IBM was almost the entire landscape of the computer industry. Each week they published about 200 pages of product updates, which we had to read for about two hours a day, from beginning to end. It was analogous to going to law school. You’d get grilled about the meaning of an IBM statement: “What are they saying here?” You’d look at it again and say, “They’re saying it can do this.” Knuckles rapped. “They’re saying we’re not saying it can’t do that, which is completely different.”

We also had to use, uh, play with the products, which we got for free to test. I wrote the first Datapro product review of the Apple MacIntosh. What do you say about something so new and different? Time to man up, be honest, have confidence in what you’ve learned. I said it was great.

Serendipitously, it was the Datapro fun and games with new computers that finally set me free as a writer. I discovered — all of a sudden — that whereas I had been slow and plodding as a writer on my Underwood, I was able to write at lightning speed on a microprocessor-powered CRT. Bingo.

Very very quick postgraduate course at Datapro. And then it was off to the Fortune 100 corporate world for the next phase of my education.

You think you’re finally starting your real career. All you’re doing is acquiring the next phase of your education


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