BY RANDY MCINTOSH
The concept of high school had changed a lot over the decades. In fact, the whole schooling system had. Rather than having students all move through together in “grades”, each was allowed to move at their own pace. Everyone started around the same age, but after a couple of years, the different aptitudes became evident and students started moving into their own streams, focused on enhancing the skills the came by naturally, but also boosting areas where they had problems.
The system worked very well. But as it became more successful, the administrators began to look over old records to determine whether those who had achieved success in the previous system were really deserving. The recently elected government made it part of their mandate to ensure that public sector employees were truly qualified for their positions.
You can imagine my surprise when I got the message that I needed go back to school.
The message went on to explain that I needed to go back to school and finish the course or else my job would be in jeopardy The cover letter was followed by a form that I needed to fill out to indicate whether I was going to take the course or forfeit my position.
I thought back to those high school days and especially my senior year when I would have taken this class. I wasn’t a well-behaved student by any measure. The group I hung out with were more interested in sex, drugs and rock ’n roll than classes, so we tended to coast through the days and party hard at night.
This wasn’t a big deal as my closest friends and I were quick studies and learned material very fast. We were able to bluff our way through most of our final year classes, just squeaking by with passing grades.
My high-school advisor was quite disappointed since I was on the path to a scholarship, but the attraction of the partying lifestyle was more important to my teenage self than some nebulous scholarship.
I walked down the hall, re-reading the message to make sure I hadn’t missed anything and stopped in front of the open door of my colleague Paula.
She looked up from her desk, “Hey Terry, you look perplexed. Did you get another one of those impenetrable papers to review on dimensional embedding?”
I laughed. I remembered the last time she and I talked that I was complaining about a paper I was review on a new theory on brain function that tried to use the idea of dimensional embedding to argue how we do mental time travel.
“No, no. Thankfully no,” I paused to carefully choose my next words, “It seems that I may not be qualified to do my job.”
“I said it seems…”
“I heard you, I just don’t understand you,” She rose and walked to the door.
I showed her the letter, “You remember there’s a review of job qualifications? Looks like I’m missing one.”
She was silent as she read the message and looked up.
“This is crazy bureaucracy. You’ve been doing this job for almost twenty years and been incredibly successful by any measure. Who cares if you flunked high school algebra?”
“Calculus, I failed calculus, well I didn’t finish it. Algebra is not the same,” I realized as I said it that I shouldn’t have.
“You can be such a dork sometimes,” she shook her head, “Okay so you’re not going to do this right? We have the conference starting next month and you are the keynote speaker and my main co-organizer. You need to be there.”
“Yeah, I hear you. I just got this message so let me follow up and see if I can get out of it. Surely they can’t be serious that they are going to send me back to high school.”
“We don’t call it high school anymore,” the bureaucrat said as he leaned towards me, “We dispensed with that arcane idea a decade ago.”
“Okay, sorry. So you’re sending me back for more training?” I was trying to be polite despite my obvious negative tone.
“That’s up to you,” he relaxed a bit, “you can either finish the calculus course, or we can find you a new position that is more in line with your qualifications.”
That hurt. All these years I’d had a lingering feeling that I really may not be cut out for my job. That I’d been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. My ability to navigate through tough situations served me well up until now. There it was on paper. I did not have the qualifications to do my job. I was an imposter.
But I wasn’t going to give up. I needed to prove myself.
“I’ll finish the course,” I tried to sound confident, “I guess I can do this as a night class or something? I do have obligations at the university.”
“We no longer offer night classes,” he leaned closer towards me. I really hate it when they try to strike this authoritative posture. I’m not a kid anymore!
“We believe it’s important for all students to intermingle. It enriches the learning environment and benefits the student and the teachers,” he tried to sound more encouraging, but he failed.
I felt myself getting a bit angry, “Or is it that with these new requirements you’re sending too many people back and it’s overwhelmed the system?”
The bureaucrat was silent, staring at me. I’d like to think that I spoke the truth and that put him on his heels.
But I didn’t, “Actually, we haven’t sent many people back, sir,” he replied, “You’re only the second one we’ve identified.”
“Oh c’mon!” my frustration was rising to the top, “you mean no one else bluffed their way through school? No one else cheated the system?”
“Oh no, you misunderstand. The cheaters tend to weed themselves out and end up in the place they should be. It’s the ones like you that we are most concerned about. The ones who enter their job thinking they can do it, all the while knowing in the back of their mind that they really don’t have what it takes. Our records indicate that you’re exactly this type. What we’re doing is giving you the chance to prove yourself once and for all.”
I wasn’t sure if he was trying to comfort me or put me in my place. I breathed deeply, resigned to what was coming next, “Okay, when do I start?”
“Monday. It’s the start of the new term. Calculus runs in the mornings from eight-thirty to noon for five weeks.”
So much for lead time. That gave me the weekend to brush up on high-school calculus.
When I got home, I was glad to see that my wife hadn’t yet arrived. I managed to sneak past the cats without causing too much commotion and down to my home office to sift through the boxes of books in my closet. Like many of my academic friends, I tended to keep my old textbooks, partly as a memento and partly because of the suspicion that I may need them again. Turns out that suspicion was correct in this case. My filing system for old books was not what one may call efficient, so I had to go through practically every box. One contained my textbook from “Nonlinear Systems Analysis” and “Principles of Urban Growth” stuffed on top of old “Mad” magazines and a cover from “The Rolling Stone". Another, which seems to be a testament to my uncertain first year in university had a book on “Cell Biology”, “History of Religion”, and “Classic Italian Recipes”. I was glad I found the last one, because I’d been dying for a good lasagna lately. I went through the last box, which included a book on “Botany for Carnivores” that I inherited from the previous tenant in my office at the university, and my high-school calculus textbook lodged in the middle of a bunch of KISS records.
The book seemed like it was brand new. When I opened it, the spine gave that familiar crackle that new books do. This bothered me because it probably meant that I actually never opened the book. Maybe they were right after all. I didn’t have my calculus credit because I never actually went to class!!
I heard the front door open and close and the cats announcing they were hungry.
“Hi,” I heard my wife’s voice as she put her bags on the floor, “did you get stuff for dinner? I was swamped today and didn’t have time to go shopping.”
I walked upstairs carrying the textbook, “No, I got some, uh, bad news so I rushed home to check on a few things. Maybe we can order in or something.”
She was scratching one of the cat’s heads when she looked up at me, “Bad news?”
“Yeah, it seems that I am not qualified for my job. The government says there is no record of me passing calculus in high school, which by the new regulations, is mandatory for a person to be a university professor.”
She stood slowly and sighed a little, “So what does that mean? Did you get fired?”
“No, no. They want me to go back and take the course so I have the qualifications. I start on Monday,” I smiled and held up the textbook.
She glanced at it, “It looks brand new. Did you just buy it?”
“I got it from my boxes in my office downstairs. It was next to my KISS records.”
She chuckled, “I think I understand now why you didn’t finish calculus.
“If you need a tutor, I’m happy to help,” she took her coat off and hung it in the closet, “I aced calculus in high school and university.”
I know she didn’t mean it, but that comment struck deeply, like I really didn’t have what it takes to be in my job.
“Thanks, let’s see how it goes next week,” I put the book on the counter and grabbed my phone, “Shall I call for pizza?”