Everything matters to somebody at some time in their lives. To prove this point I've pulled a bittersweet memory from deep within the BYU archives- remember that time I had to bowl, and bowl well, in order to graduate from the Y and feed my new family? Of course you don't- but you will now.
I’ve never been a big fan of bowling; I’ve only done it a few times in my whole life, and only under the duress of social peer pressure. Nevertheless, there was one season of life where bowling, whether I wanted it to or not, had to mean everything to me; when excellence in bowling would determine the direction of my chosen career and future earning potential. But, before I tell you that story... I have to tell you this story.
College was a torturous experience. I enjoy learning, but was not up to the stress of grades and classes and majors and minors and general education requirements and working part-time and being poor and living in sub-human subterranean dwellings etc. I was a member of the “BYU Underground;” every place I lived in before meeting and marrying my sweet wife was a basement (you can read more about the BYU Underground here). Hence, I was determined to leave BYU at the earliest possible moment. An almost inexplicable combination of good fortune and careful planning resulted in a final semester that would end with exactly the right amount of general education and major credits to graduate.
The letter in my hand promising a full-time, secure job with the Department of Defense added to the tension and the pressure of the season. The offer of employment was conditional upon successful attainment of a bachelor’s degree with a 3.0 GPA. Blending the stress of completing a “C-less” final semester with the excitement of finally becoming a productive member of society was an engaging challenge.
After calculating how high the stakes were three weeks into that last semester, I made one last trip to the academic counselor’s office to review the credits that had been amassed over the years and confirm that I qualified for graduation. I shared with her vocational prospects that lay ahead of me and how much they depended on my academic accomplishments. She flashed a gracious but pre-programmed smile that had been practiced on thousands of other nervous students who had relied on her for their future. The smile was immediately engulfed, however, by a full facial expression of reserved but concerned disappointment. With uncharacteristic apprehension, she measured her words carefully: “you are one half-credit short of GE (general education) credits required for graduation.”
I struggled to temper my disappointment with a forced positive mental attitude. Heck, its only .5 credits! How hard would I have to work for .5 credits? Was there even such a class out there this last semester? How had I come so close without actually passing? Where had I fallen short? My counselor, obviously a trained mind reader with a promising future on the state fair circuit, supplied the answer: “you are .5 credits short in physical education requirements.”
Should I laugh or cry? Laugh at the unimaginably ridiculous result of a general education system gone beserk, or cry because it was actually true? After realizing that this was neither a joke nor a nightmare sparked by a deadly combination of late-night pizza and final semester worries, I talked myself down and became dedicated to finding the path of least resistance. This meant shopping around for a PE course long after classes had started and many student rolls would be full. Believe it or not, my last but only choice, the only class with room this late in the game, was... bowling. At first I had a hard time accepting that bowling was considered a class; then I marveled at my good fortune for earning academic credit by having fun twice a week. Maybe this would actually relieve school stress!
During the next two months, I launched heavy sparkling colored spheres down shiny wooden lanes with reckless abandon twice a week, without regard to form, technique, or even how many pins were knocked down. In the mix of homework and classes, part-time work demands, and trying to figure out this new person walking around the apartment (my wife!), it was liberating to do something where I didn’t have to worry about the quality of my performance. In this instance, however, ignorance started out being bliss but wasn’t going to end up that way. The planets were lining up against me; a laissez-faire attitude would threaten the very existence of my degree, chosen profession, and even an ability to provide for my young family.
“Houston, we have a problem.” That ominous phrase ran an incessant loop in my head as I walked across campus on that crisp fall afternoon, a little over halfway through that last semester, to meet with the academic counselor at her request. The absence of her perpetual smile was the first clue something was wrong. “Richard,” she started off tentatively, “as you know, your major (Korean Studies) allows only three C credits in any class, including your GE courses.” “So,” I’m thinking to myself, “whats the problem? There was that one C in Introduction to Biology years ago, but I’ve been maintaining an A- average since then.” Then she dropped the bomb; “you’re getting an F in bowling.”
“You’re getting an F in bowling... you’re getting an F in bowling...” Those six deadly words echoed ad nauseum in my mind. In the excitement of looking forward to graduating and a full-time job, I had neglected to detect the gathering storm. It didn’t take long for the dominoes to line up; bad bowling leads to.... bad grade, which leads to....no graduation, which leads to..... no job, which leads to.... no money. I would have to improve my bowling somehow, or spend an extra semester re-taking a half-credit class and jeopardize my future earning potential.
It was too late now. We were breaking our lease, preparing to leave for Maryland and a new life, and using the letter of employment as collateral to buy a new car. Everything was riding on bowling. I would have to do better somehow.
It’s amazing how quickly changing circumstances can remarkably alter our attitudes and perspectives. One minute I was leading a carefree bowling life; now much more was on the line. The irony was glaring. Suddenly, form and technique and the right shoes and a lucky lane became really important. I had to focus and concentrate on achieving the right stride and releasing the ball at just the right moment. I spent sleepless nights critically replaying my performance earlier in the day, searching for that one tweak that would push the ball more straight and true down the lane. “Did I have the right spin? How do you deal with a 1-4 split? Could it be the ball’s fault?” These things mattered now.
Luckily, when I started paying attention and treating my time at the lanes as a real class instead of a hobby, I learned that grades were determined by how well a student improved on his initial scores. It should have been easy; since my first game was so horrifically bad, just having a little bit more pride in my work would result in rapid improvement. I began watching my scores closely. My mind was randomly generating strategies to release the ball stronger and straighter. I even spent some of my own precious time and limited budget down at the lanes, striving to discover that hidden bowling secret that would add 60 points to my score.
I decided to use my innate sense of and appreciation for the spirit of competition to my advantage. Watching professional bowlers on television (it’s just a little bit more exciting than watching golf!), I was intrigued by the competitive tension drawn by the hushed but intense descriptions offered by seasoned announcers. “If Bill Schlemeki of Skokie, Indiana,” the announcer whispers gingerly in the background, “can land this last strike, he will walk away with one.... hundred.... thousand..... dollars, and reign as grand champion....”
At the risk of revealing more than what most people would care to know about my unique but active imagination, it was not hard to overlay this same scene on my own situation. Just like Mr. Schlemeki, who had a lot riding on the championship game, my future too teetered on the edge of vastly improved bowling scores. In those dark hours in November, as the semester was winding to a close in the basement of the Wilkinson Center, I would be standing in the midst of a busy, noisy crowd of student family night groups and young daters in love, totally consumed in pondering on my next strategic bowling move. I drew inspiration from recreating my own little championship drama. “If Richard Tait, of Livermore, California,” my invisible, imaginary announcer whispers in the background, “can nail at least 8 pins in this last frame and bring his grade up to a B-, he will walk away with graduation... a new car.. a brand new job, and a future in providing for his family....”
The self-induced tension was almost unbearable at times, but the competitive spirit drove me to excel. The imaginary announcer’s voice pushed me through many troubled, exhausted moments, when I was ready to throw in the towel and accept a discouraging fate. Finally, however, an afternoon in December arrived, and the announcer’s voice was no longer imaginary. Let me rephrase that - lest someone think I was completely divorced from reality (four years of BYU can do that for you...), the voice was always only in my mind, but now the situation he was narrating was real. It was close to the last day of the semester, and a good score was critical to bringing my average up to the B- threshold. After a particularly stellar day of bowling, I rushed to the instructor’s office and begged him to recalculate my average scores several times to insure that my B- grade was not just a good dream induced by a good night’s sleep. I’m sure he was left wondering why a student was so thoroughly elated with a B- grade in a half-credit class teaching a skill valued by less than .001 of the world’s population. I, however, was happy beyond description to have altered the course of one man’s history by paying attention to my bowling game.
The moral of this story- getting little things out of the way permits the big things to happen.