Brother George and the Mid-Term

How One Test Changed My Life (and my Learning)

In the fall of 1980 I was a 20-year old Junior at a small Catholic University in San Antonio, Texas. Up to this point in my learning life I had yet to be really challenged in any particular subject ”“ my standard operating procedure for many years was to not really study anything until days (or even hours) before any test. While I had a natural ability to absorb knowledge and a fair amount of intellectual curiosity, I preferred Rolling Stone, Billboard, and Time to Applied Economics or English Literature.

A year before I had made the decision to get my major in Accounting; not so much because it was my dream ambition, but because it looked like the quickest way to a good paycheck. I had originally been “pre-law” when I first started college, but given my lack of challenge up to that point, the prospect of three additional years in school, and a need for an income, I quickly gravitated toward what I thought was a pretty easy ride to graduation.

Little did I know that there was going to be a very large (literal and physical) obstacle in my way to easy street, and his name was Brother George. Brother George taught the “core” course in the Accounting curriculum, “Intermediate Accounting”, and his reputation was one of those “chew ‘em up and spit ‘em out” professors, much like the image projected by the fictional Professor Kingsfield in the movie “The Paper Chase”.

Brother George was a big, rotund man, with big frame glasses and an intense stare. I distinctly remember my first day of class. He very methodically and calmly introduced the class and its importance to our degree and our future careers in accounting, and then added this kicker: he graded on a bell curve, so a certain percentage of us will fail the course. That got my attention. He also talked about his testing format, that was the most unique I had ever seen (before or since) – the questions are listed from hardest to easiest, and you were only graded on the questions you completed, BUT you had to do them in order. Any answers after a skipped question didn’t count. To top it off he graded the tests using some Byzantine formula that involved taking the square root of the raw score and multiplying it by some weird “factor”.

After listening to all this I got the first pangs of anxiety I’d ever experienced in a classroom, and that anxiety persisted through the first few weeks of class. Nevertheless I didn’t change my study habits all that much, preferring instead to join the campus drama club (I got lead role in the local production of “Carousel”) and host a few parties in my shared dorm room.

Then the Mid-Term exam approached ”“ Brother George kept ratcheting up the pressure by piling on more and more homework and “pop quizzes” (not to mention putting folks on the spot in the classroom, very Kingsfield-like), and topped it off by saying that this Mid-Term was going to be a rude awakening for a lot of people. The thing that struck me about all this was that this was the first class in my scholastic career where I was being treated as a responsible adult, and in a very “business-like” manner. This approach certainly was effective ”“ he never failed to get all of our rapt attention in class.

Needless to say my attitude about learning began to change from a casual pursuit to an intense need to survive that Mid-Term. It was all I could think about for the two weeks preceding the exam, and I frantically tried to catch up on my studying, losing a lot of sleep in the process (and starting my long association with the coffee bean). Fear of failure is wonderful motivator, and it was working wonders for me.

Finally, I got to the day before the exam feeling reasonably confident, and hoped to just put in a few hours of final preparation so I could get a good night’s sleep. Those hopes were dashed pretty quickly when I got stuck on several problems that I just KNEW Brother George would put right in front of the test (remember the hardest ones came first). So, I ended up doing the “all nighter”, watching my roommate sleep peacefully while I was pulling my hair out trying to figure out the debits and credits.

It’s said that sometimes the best epiphanies come in the wee hours, and in my case it was true. What happened in my room at 4AM went far beyond the content of the Mid-Term ”“ I was re-programming my brain to be more disciplined and focused. When I finally “got” the problems that had vexed me for so long that day, I also pledged that I would never again approach my class work (or anything else of importance to me, for that matter) in such a casual manner.

Fortunately, I was able to get an “A” on the Mid-Term. I fondly remember my audible sigh of relief when Brother George announced my score (yes, he made all the scores public too!). I had made it through the storm, and because of my newfound path for learning it was truly downhill from there. Even the CPA exam, which I later passed in 1982, didn’t seem as challenging.

I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Brother George, who passed away a few years back. Every year I contribute monies to my alma mater in his honor. He was the person responsible for laying the foundation for my lifetime of learning ”“ a focused process that continues to this day, 26 years later. To have a mentor like that at a crucial time in my life was a gift I will always cherish.

Contextual Posts:


Starbucker (aka Terry), left the accounting profession in 1987 and is now an operations executive for a service company who lives in Connecticut and posts his musings and observations about "the optimistic side of the daily grind" in Ramblings from a Glass Half Full.

Comments

  1. says

    Good story, Terry.
    I found a quote with a similar message in a book review I am working on. “Learning happens in every job, but you have to pay attention” Robin Wolaner
    By paying attention to Brother George, you were prepared for the mid-term. Others may have missed reading the signs and were not prepared.

  2. says

    Isn’t it strange that those “tough” teachers that we had way back when are the ones that molded our lives. The ones that wouldn’t let us just “get by.”
    I am thankful everyday for the ones that challenged me to be better, to go further, and to make something of my life. I’ve had a few “Brother Georges” cross my path only to direct me down a path less traveled. Paths that were tough and challenging but that led to peaks with amazing vistas.
    Thank God for great teachers!

  3. says

    Thank you Steve for your kind words – you are so right about paying attention; it’s amazing what a little focus can do!
    John, I agree that the vistas on those peaks are indeed beautiful! If I hadn’t buckled down back then with Brother George’s help, I wouldn’t be working amongst the Rocky Mountains today – and I would have missed many many vistas(literally and figuratively) I will now treasure always. Thank God indeed!
    Thanks again to you both.

  4. says

    The Mark of a Great Teacher

    I used to like pithy sayings. One of my favorites was We can never be taught. We can only learn. As with many such sayings, this one contains a lot of truth, but at the expense of other truths.
    No one controls our lives but us. We decide …

  5. says

    Your post brings back vivid memories of my high school Trig teacher. Mrs. Tisdale, a former college professor, took it upon herself to teach seniors what it would take to succeed in college.
    We were required to take notes in class and submit them at the end of 6 weeks. I received an “F” at first because my notes were so skimpy, even though I was scoring 100s on all tests and pop quizzes.
    In shock, I begged for a 2nd chance and was soon taking complete notes, just as Mrs. Tisdale planned. (Thank goodness the notebook grades were not factored into report cards!)
    I still benefit from those lessons in note-taking. Thank you Mrs. Tisdale and THANK YOU, Terry, for sharing your story!

  6. says

    Hi Blaine – thanks for your comment. What I find really interesting is the uniqueness in the approaches of these “mentor” teachers, whether it’s the notetaking review of Mrs. Tisdale or the strange test grading habits of Brother George. There’s no “cookie cutter” approach to great learning techniques and practices – a good lesson in itself, isn’t it! Great teachers are like diamonds – precious resources that should be highly valued and treasured, but all slightly different in their “cut, color and clarity”. All the best.

  7. says

    I thought a lot about my children as I read this Starbucker, and of all the times they have come home from school over the years saying that they got stuck with “such a junk teacher this year.”
    I soon figured out there were two, quite different meanings to “junk.” One was that they were bored and not being challenged, and when this was the case I was sure to introduce myself to their teacher, and fully engage in whatever parent tutoring participation was requested —and then some.
    The second meaning of “junk” was that they had a toughie, a disciplinarian who expected much from them and demanded respect for both subject matter and everyone’s time and attention in the classroom. The work ethic of study was revered, and as a result my kids came away with a whole lotta learning by the time the school year ended, in more than just the course at hand. As a parent, these were the partners in my children’s life-skill learning that I was very grateful for, and I was careful that I never diluted their messages when we discussed (or debated) them at home. These were the teachers who got thank you cards AND gifts from my kids (and both their parents) at the end of the year.
    My earliest tough love teacher? Sister Hildegard in the first grade. Whew. Come to think of it, sure could’ve used her in the 6th grade” and the 9th” oh, and definitely senior year.

  8. says

    Great story, Terry. I certainly could have used that kind of mentoring most of my years in school. It would be nice to know there are more teachers out there like Brother George.

  9. says

    Thanks Rosa – I had several “Sister Hildegards” too in grade school – I vividly remember the very uncomfortable looking collars that the sisters had to wear at my school. They were mentors of a sort that probably deserve a story of their own, becuase of the unique techniques they used to instill good manners and values. Thanks again Rosa for the opportunity – these were memories I hadn’t thought about in a long time.
    Tim, thanks for your comment – yes, I was lucky to have someone like Brother George in my life, and I’m glad I had this public chance to thank him. All the best.

  10. says

    Brother George

    You know what draws me into a story and captivates my interest? The ability to relate something of myself to the story. An author’s ability to relate to his readers is the mark of a most excellent writer. Starbucker, writing

  11. says

    Great story Terry. Thanks for sharing it.
    Interesting that we all remember the toughest teachers best, because those are the ones that challenged our thinking the most. My wife works in the public schools now, and many teachers want to be “friends” with the students. I had a few teachers like this in high school, though I don’t remember them nearly as well as the tough ones.
    Mrs. Vaughn was my tough teacher. She encouraged me to read and had public reading contests to see who could read the most books in our second grade glass. While some were content to read 1 or 2 books a month, I often read 1 or 2 books a day, and was satisfied with my learning prowess only when I knew I would win the monthly contest. Thank you Mrs. V for all you did to stimulate my learning. It’s much of the reason I am why I am today.

  12. says

    Terry, Your post has certainly hit the tipping point in making us travel down memory lane. Reading Phil’s latest comment inspired me to share just one more teacher story.
    When I was in the 9th grade, my science teacher (who’s name I cannot summon) shook the very foundations of my existence. He informed me, quite politely, that most people did not believe that the universe was created in 6 days. Having spent every day of my 14 years in what we called the buckle of the Bible belt, I was shocked that anyone would say such a thing.
    I’ll never forget his coaching tone. He knew that I was a bright fellow who had simply been sheltered regarding modern science. He slowly, deliberately explained concepts that were huge at the time: that people have different beliefs; that being open to new ideas and evidence were valuable traits; that science and personal values were not at odds but rather addressing different aspects of life.
    The world changed for me that day; it grew exponentially. That day allowed me to question, to probe. It allowed me to become comfortable with uncertainty. It gave me permission to change my mind, to not always know absolute truth. As Phil put it, “Its much of the reason I am why I am today.”

  13. says

    Phil and Blaine, thanks for your teacher stories! Much like the both of you my mind has been full of images these last few days of several other teachers that were important to my learning life(although maybe not as important as Brother George), like the nuns I described to Rosa in an earlier comment. Each one of them made a contribution to the “construction of me”. The tipping point indeed! Thanks again for keeping this conversation going.

  14. says

    I love the teacher stories… I had several teachers who inspired me to love learning and I am grateful to them all. I had one of those “tough teachers” in high school chemistry. Everyone complained about him, but I liked him – probably because he like me. He saw that I loved to learn and he appreciated that. I always thought the ones who challenged us the most were doing us a favor.
    As for the “all-nighters” in college – I pulled an all-nighter to study for a final and then went to the final and fell asleep! I may have been prepared, but I failed the exam because I slept thought it! :0 I must not have had enough coffee. After that experience I vowed that I would always get enough sleep before a test – even if I wasn’t fully prepared… I would certainly do better if I was awake! :)

  15. says

    Yes Kirsten, getting the proper amount of caffiene for those all-nighters is really important :-) Thank you for your comment – it’s so interesting to hear all these other “tough teacher” stories and how important they were to our learning; you bet those folks were doing us a (very critical) favor! All the best.

  16. says

    I must admit Terry that I have read your article multiple times and have been too awed to write a comment. Your story for me was poignant and at once struck a deep chord in my own memory of a great teacher. Mahalo for bringing these memories back to the foremind with such reverence. Mahalo for writing such a beautiful and genuine story of appreciation.

  17. says

    Toni, I’m very thankful for your kind words. You are so correct, I really wanted to do this story with reverence, and I’m glad you picked up on that. I’m also pleased that it sparked so many memories for folks like yourself who read this story. Mahalo to you too!

  18. says

    Terry
    Yours has been a highlight amongst some great articles in the last couple of weeks so thanks for sharing.
    When this little story arrived in my Inbox this week, I was caused to think of Brother George, and so I share it with you.
    You’ve got to love this School Principal
    According to a news report, a certain private school in Washington was recently faced with a unique problem.
    A number of 12-year-old girls were beginning to use lipstick and would put it on in the bathroom. That was fine, but after they put on their lipstick they would press their lips to the mirror leaving dozens of little lip prints.
    Every night the maintenance man would remove them and the next day the girls would put them back.
    Finally the principal decided that something had to be done. She called all the girls to the bathroom and met them there with the maintenance man. She explained that all these lip prints were causing a major problem for the custodian who had to clean the mirrors every night.
    To demonstrate how difficult it had been to clean the mirrors, she asked the maintenance man to show the girls how much effort was required.
    He took out a long-handled squeegee, dipped it in the toilet, and cleaned the mirror with it.
    Priceless!
    Since then, there have been no lip prints on the mirror.
    There are teachers….and then there are educators
    Thanks again Terry

  19. says

    Thanks Chris for your comment. Your story put a smile on my face this morning. Yes, there is a big difference between teaching and educating. Thank goodness for educators like Brother George (and that principal!). All the best.

  20. says

    Our November Ho‘ohana; When Parenting Works

    Grand, glorious November, filled with grace and generous abundance; we are so grateful you have arrived! I am not very original with my Ho‘ohana for November. (Ho‘ohana is our monthly theme, and my work’s intention.) I am not very creative,

  21. says

    JJL back Then: Brother George and Terry Starbucker

    I hope you are enjoying our June theme as much as I am! Available dates for contributions are filling fast, and so if you have a story to tell about the learning from the men in your life, please do