How I Developed a Work Ethic
Don't wait until your life is on the line to develop a work ethic.
College life was just a continuation of high school for me but there was a great deal more at stake. A half dozen of my high school friends and acquaintances had had the misfortune of being drafted into the army to fight in Vietnam so I think the only reason I ended up attending Ball State is that Dad didn’t want to me get drafted. There had been no discussion of the hazards of military service before I arrived but I’m hard pressed to think of any other reason because I certainly hadn’t in any academic sense earned the right to go on to any college.
As far as academic memories go, the one that really stands out was Dr. Mayfield’s Early World History course but not for the reasons one might imagine. What impressed me about his course wasn’t that I had an interest in history but that, as a survey course presented in a large assembly hall to incoming freshmen, he made it clear that he was too busy to waste time taking attendance and that that our grades would be wholly based on our scores on the mid-term and final exams.
Well, I decided to take advantage of his good nature and skipped his lectures giving no thought whatsoever to the natural consequence of such a decision. As one might guess, I flunked the mid-term but it wasn’t until a week before the end of the semester — when I learned that if I failed to pass the final exam I would be kicked out of school and that meant that I would lose my draft deferment. It was then that my nonchalant attitude turned to fear for I knew that the military, unlike Dr. Mayfield, would be keeping daily attendance.
Talking with a history major down the hall in my dormitory, I learned that Dr. Mayfield’s tests were derived from a paperback history book that contained a comprehensive outline of human history up to the American Revolution. “If you are familiar with that, you won’t have to worry about passing the test,” he said.
Seeing the writing on the wall, I immediately went to the bookstore, bought the aforementioned book which was printed in an inordinantly small font and was about three times as thick as your typical paperback. Buying a large bottle of NoDoz, the over-the-counter drug of choice when students burned the midnight oil back in the 60s, I studied that book night and day for five days straight and in the process ended up creating and memorizing an extraordinarily detailed chronological outline that ended up being about 50 narrow lined, notebook pages long.
The morning of the final I remember taking a seat in the front row and being the first of a hundred or more students to hand it in. I also vaguely remember stumbling back to the dorm and immediately falling into a deep sleep, that one might rightfully compare to a coma.
Much to my chagrin a few hours into that sleep, I was rudely awakened by my roommate who told me that I had a telephone call and that I’d best get up and take it because it was from Dr. Mayfield’s office. When I picked up the receiver and identified myself, the woman on the other end of the line informed me that Dr. Mayfield needed to see me in his office, immediately.
“Why?” I asked.
“I’m afraid I can’t go into any detail but I can tell you Dr. Mayfield wants to talk to you about your exam,” she responded.
When I hung up the phone, I started to think about getting dressed but quickly realized that I hadn’t bothered to take my clothes off when I returned to my room, so I was good to go.
Fifteen minutes later I arrived in the history department and introduced myself to the secretary seated at the desk to the left of the entrance to Dr. Mayfield’s office. She picked up the phone, announced my arrival, and then instructed me to go right in.
“Dr. Mayfield will see you now,” she said.
Barely getting my foot in the room, the first thing to strike me was that Dr. Mayfield didn’t invite me to sit down. Instead, he ordered me to take a seat and that immediately eliminated a thought that had briefly crossed my mind that I might be in for an award or something.
“Where did you get my exam, Mr. Scott?” he asked.
“What are you talking about,” I responded as I struggled to keep my eyes open.
“You missed one question on this final exam and there were only four other students who scored any better and they aced the mid-term. What’s more, I can honestly say that I don’t recognize you,” he said.
“Are you suggesting that I cheated,” I asked.
“Well, I didn’t.” I said.
Dr. Mayfield then proceeded ask me a series of questions to find out just exactly what I did know about early world history and after I answered them correctly, he leaned back in his chair and shook his head. “Okay, I’m fairly convinced you really did study for this exam. Why did you fail the mid-term?” he asked.
I went on to explain what had led me to skip class all semester as well as what finally led me to apply myself.
“Well, Ron,” he said. “I’ve got some good news and bad news for you. First, the good news. I’m going to give you an A on the final.”
“That’s great,” I said thinking that the battle had been won. “What’s the bad news?”
“I’m giving you a D for the course,” he responded.
“But I earned an A,” I retorted in an indignant voice common to teenagers who feel they have been cheated.
Standing to let me know the meeting had come to an end, he closed with the following advice. “While the D will keep you in school, I hope it will also serve as a reminder to you that you don’t get paid a week’s wages when you choose to limit your work to the final hours of a Friday afternoon.”
As I walked home, my disapointment turned to an awakening. it dawned on me that his understanding and generosity enabled me to stay in college. Had I failed his course, I would have undoubtedly been drafted into the army and found myself walking the jungles of Vietnam.