I remember it was cold out. Not like dead of winter cold, but enough that I was wearing a long sleeve shirt. So it was either toward the end of the first semester, or it was nearing the middle of the second. I was sixteen. It got dark early, so it was definitely during the standard time and not the daylight saving time. Whenever it was, it was report card time. I got home before my parents every day, and I had been checking the mail with purpose, because I knew there was damage that needed to be controlled.
I could go into the longer, deeper story, but I won’t and I’ll just say that I was a solid C student. My parents had been trying for years to get me to do better. I simply had no desire to do more than was required to pass. However, this particular report card was different.Â AmongÂ the usually assortment of Cs was a lone F. For the first time ever I wasn’t passing a class. I was on top of it, keeping an eye out for the report card and then… I don’t know. My sixteen year old brain was probably thinking I could alter the grade, turn the F into a B or something, like they do in the movies and on TV.
I came home, checked the mail and went to my room. My parents came home and went about their normal end of day routine. After a little while, my father calls me downstairs. I go. “Get a shovel and meet me in the backyard,” he says.
“Great,” I think, “yard work!” I was being sarcastic, of course, but yard work usually did mean getting some extra allowance. I get the shovel and meet my father in the backyard. He’s stand in one of the “islands”, you know, where they’ve put pine straw down between trees to keep from having to mow there. There are plants around the edges, flowers mostly, but this one is fairly barren in the center.
“I want you to dig a hole,” he says. “Two feet wide by two feet long and about a foot deep.” And then he walks off, back to the house.
I’m confused, but I start digging. It’s chilly out, and I didn’t get a jacket, so I’m trying to dig quickly, keep my body moving so I can stay warm. After a while, I’m nearly finished when my father strolls back out. He barely looks at the hole I’ve dug and says, “Now I want you to fill it back in.” And he heads back to the house.
I’m more confused, but I start shoveling again, filling the dirt back into the hole. As I finish up and am patting down the last of the dirt, my father returns. It’s dark now, the yard illuminated by the lights from the house. He is aÂ silhouette as he approaches, his breath puffing out to the side as he walks.Â He points a finger at me, gaining my full attention.
“If you don’t improve your grades, this is the kind of work you’ll be doing for the rest of your life.” He stands there for a moment. He shakes his finger at me, once, twice, like he’s counting out the cadence in his head, maybe there is something he wants to add. Finally he says, “Put the shovel away and come back inside.”
That night I eat my dinner in silence, and after I go to my room and do my homework. I start doing my homework most nights. At the end of the semester I’ve pulled up my grades – the F becoming a C and even one or two of the Cs turning into Bs.
There is much more to my educational history, and not all of it is good, but I will always remember that it was my father who finally figured out how to get through to a kid who didn’t think school was worth doing well at.