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in memory of Dad…
It was a cold, rainy day when I walked into the thermodynamics exam at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. I was broke – instant coffee for breakfast, followed by a ½-can Spaghettios lunch and the other half for dinner (Don’t tell my mom.) – kind of broke. I didn’t have the newest calculator that was sweeping the engineering geeks by storm: the “Scientific” one. My free solar version from the summer bank-telling job was barely helpful in the interpolation of the hundreds of pages of tables and figures in the back of my thermodynamics book. Nothing was helping me figure out WHICH table to use. My lack of sleep (from staying up studying half the night) and lack of breakfast probably only exacerbated my lack of knowledge for the subject at hand: thermo, as we affectionately called it.
I could hardly believe when the buzzer sounded that the test was done. Had I written down ANY answers? I felt like I had spent the entire hour thumbing through tables, trying to remember which one to use! The heaviness was felt through all of my classmates as we exited the room. Nobody felt great about the exam, but I didn’t even feel like I had completed it! I contemplated, “What IF I got the ones right where I had at least written down an answer? Maybe I would get a 50%??” Ugh. Failure.
When I returned to my dorm, I called my dad. (Because in the ancient days, phones were actually hooked to the wall. They had a long cord attached that – with the right angling – could clear all contents off any desktop. SO I had to wait till I got to my dorm to call my dad. But I digress.) Along with a quirky sense of humor (like when I took a picture of the “chip on his shoulder” below), Dad and I shared a love for engineering, and he loved if I called about anything – especially engineering!
Once, I was stuck on optics and the science behind light prisms. My professor, Dr. Young,
was one of the authors of the textbook, written by Sears, Zemansky and Young. His name increased the book’s cost to $250, and his class required the “new edition,” so we couldn’t purchase it cheaply from former students. (Did this dude know I was eating ½-can Spaghettios meals?) I knew asking this professor any question about prisms would avail no different explanation than what was already in the book, since he had authored it! When I called Dad, he promptly sent me his engineering book from thirty-four years prior, (Who saves these things?!) so I could see what it had to say about prisms. I was shocked when I opened the package to find that his book’s explanation of prisms looked the exact same as mine! His book’s authors? “Sears and Zemansky.” $4.
Fast-forward to my thermo-failing day, and I called Dad. I wasn’t really looking for engineering help this time. I think I was just looking for a shoulder to hold my tears. I told him I thought I had failed my test… with less than a 50. He said, “This is the first time? Oh that happened to me a lot! Haha!”
I wasn’t laughing. Basically choking a cry.
“Well, I haven’t thought about thermo tests in years,” he said. “Did you try your hardest and give it your best?”
“Yes!” I said, emphasizing my belief in my word. “I did! I re-did all the homework so I knew what I was doing; I stayed up half the night re-reading, understanding! I thought I was READY!”
That’s when he said something that has impacted my thinking ever since:
“Well if you did your best, then angels can do no more.”
What?! He wasn’t going to be mad at me for my bad grade?! He wasn’t going to lecture me on what I should have done? He wasn’t going to try to get me riled up to protest the teacher for making it hard? He was just going to leave it like this?!
I haven’t thought about thermodynamics or exams in a few decades, but one day my son woefully told me that he had bombed his science exam. I remember the car ride home from one of his first weeks of high school, hearing him go on and on about the injustice that it was too hard, the self-abasing comments about “how stupid he was,” and even sibling comparison on how he’ll never be as good as his older brother.
I finally cut off his words and said, “Did you do your best?”
“WHAT?!!!” His choleric personality took those as fighting words and he began strongly arguing, “YES!! I DID! I did everything I knew how to do to get ready for this stupid test!”
And I passed on my dad’s advice, “Then angels can do no more.”
Leadership gurus say it this way, “You can’t be guaranteed success; you can only deserve it.” [but be sure you deserve it.]
Girlfriend, as life goes on, I see some places where maybe I got proverbial A’s to show for my massive effort, but I see many other places where I have set goals and reset goals and reset goals and felt like such a failure at the lack of completion. I always feel like I have to pick myself up by the bootstraps and ask, “Did I really do my best? My BEST?! REALLY?! Then angels can do no more!” When my best isn’t good enough for success in God’s timing, then at least my best effort gives a cushion in the waiting room.
My strong-personality son finished that bad-test-day with some words beyond his years. As evening approached, he quietly came to me and said, “Mom, do you know you are not like other moms? All my friends get into trouble for bad grades. You and Dad are the only ones I know who would tell me something like you did today. If you had punished me for my grade, I wouldn’t have wanted to try harder next time; I wouldn’t have wanted to try at all.”
I guess I, too, had a dad who was not like other dads. He helped me get an A in things that matter.
Col 3:23 “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters…”
- Disposing of my Disposition
- Real Moms: “When the Last Goldfish Dies”
- A Cookie Kind of Grace (Celebration of Dad)