There were fourteen students in my fall-semester section of C&T, or Cultures and Traditions, a required course for Wabash College sophomores that was designed to give us a brief but intense look into cultures we most likely hadn’t been exposed to in high school. Three cultures per semester: ancient Greeks, ancient Chinese, medieval monks, African-American experience, ancient Hebrews, and one more I can’t remember.
My good friend and fellow Wabash Phi Psi Larry Adams is the creator of the cartoon at the right, which sums up how a lot of students felt about the class. I know I was dreading C&T because from what I’d heard most of our grade was going to come from class participation. I had been quite an active class participant in high school, but in my first week as a freshman at Wabash I clammed up. I had nothing to say. I was intimidated by guys who might or might not have been smarter than me but who sure as hell made sure the professors knew they were there.
I don’t know how many words I said out loud in my four years of classes at Wabash, but I’d be surprised if it was in the three figures.
I knew I should be contributing to the discussions, so I would think of something relevant to say and wait for the right moment to say it. And every time I had something to add, either someone else would make the same point or the topic would change.
(This is also why I hated brainstorming sessions in my career in advertising. I preferred to think about the project at hand and coming up with potential solutions that didn’t suck, as opposed to just bouncing a lot of irrelevant ideas around the room. Same way with client meetings. Account managers used to ask me if I wasn’t engaged in my work, which is when I first said “I’m listening as loud as I can.”)
My fall-semester section was taught by Norman Moore, who happened to be Dean of the College at the time. Dean Moore is the one who, when asked to explain the Wabash tagline “For the Exceptional Man,” famously said that the exceptional man is one who urinates in the middle of the bowl to make the loudest splash.
I’m sure it didn’t take him too many class periods to realize that my urinating skills were far from exceptional.
Over the course of the semester, my one attempt at a discussion point had been shut down rather obnoxiously by the guy sitting across from me. And in the final week, Dean Moore had us take a blank sheet of paper and rank everyone in the class according to the value each one brought to the class discussion. As I recall, this would have a tiny bit of weight on our discussion grade.
Dean Moore compiled the results, and on the last day of class handed everyone a slip of paper with a number on it, showing where our peers had ranked us.
My paper said 13.
Who in the world, besides me, would have been dumb enough to rank me higher than last? Had I forgotten about some brilliant point I made? Did I fall asleep and mutter something profound?
That #13 discussion ranking puzzled me for years. Until it finally hit me: Nobody got a paper with 14 on it.
Merciful—and well played, Dean Moore.