Like An Immigrant

As the child of a multi-generational family I was raised by immigrants. My Grandmother came to this country in her mother's womb, which was a great place to be considering the conditions on the immigrant ships of the day. She was lucky enough to grow up in Minnesota where Scandinavians were welcome.
 
My Grandfather landed in New Jersey in 1898 at the end of the great depression that began in 1893. Anyone who was there already considered newcomers to be trespassers and competition for jobs. Immigrants were often urged to "do the right thing and move on".
 
I grew up with their stories and the stories of other immigrants, but it was hard for me to put myself in their shoes until I decided to go back to college. It was then that I began to feel like a stranger in a strange land – that is, like an immigrant.
 
For many years I had done whatever it took to provide for myself and my family.  I had washed dishes, cooked, swept floors, commercial fished, surveyed, built pole barns, maintained parks, cut firewood, split firewood, and butchered chickens. Then I took a test that suggested that I might make a good computer programmer. I liked the opportunities that such a profession could offer and felt that college would be a breeze since I previously had been a straight-A student and had tested very high in mathematical ability.
 
It could be said - the higher the hubris, the further the fall – and I was about to tumble from a great height.
 
I enrolled at the University of Alaska Anchorage, majoring in Computer Science in 1987 at the age of 38.  I had not studied for 18 years. My adviser was also the teacher for several of my courses.  He was a tall, lanky, cantankerous Viet Nam War veteran and had been a Green Beret. I'm going to call him Doc Wayne after the actor who portrayed a Green Beret.
 
Doc Wayne taught my first computer programming class.  I was shocked when I got my first test grade. It was about thirty of a possible hundred points. I shrugged it off to a rough start but I got similar grades on the next two tests. 
 
I went to Doc Wayne and cried like a baby. I got no sympathy.  He compared my situation to his experience at boot camp and used cliches like "just keep trying" and "when you fall down just get up". I didn't find his response at all helpful or inspirational. I felt pretty sorry for myself.
 
Soon reality began to set in. I was failing my major subject because  my "intellectual muscles" had atrophied from lack of use.  It was time to seek a remedy. I swallowed my humiliation and developed a plan and Bridgette was part of it.
 
Bridgette - not her real name - had recently graduated from High School in France and had more recently immigrated to Alaska. Her English was hard to follow, but she had told me that she was majoring in Hotel - Restaurant management. She was maintaining an 'A' in the same class that I was failing so miserably.  Bridgette had a way of just showing up. She frequently sat next to me in the class. If we were both at the library or the computer lab, she managed to seek out a seat closest to me. She treated me like a favorite uncle.
 
I lost touch with Bridgette after that semester, but met her again by chance some years later. She had a diploma, a new job and a very pleased looking new husband in tow. By then she spoke perfect English. She told me how comfortable she had felt with me because I treated her respectfully and paid close attention to her faulty English.  She went on to say that some treated her like she was stupid because of her English and that she "looked up to me". That last amused me as she was about four inches taller than I.
 
Bridgette's part in my plan was informed by prior experience. Years before I had worked with people of Philippine descent in seafood canneries. I was impressed by the clarity with which they communicated amongst each other and with me in noisy environments. The Philippines is a place with many dialects and languages. People in that area have had to learn to communicate with more than just words. Later on, I would be trained to do a job by an elder Yupik woman. Her English was as rudimentary as Bridgette's speech was when I first met her.  I was impressed by the efficiency with which she was able to communicate the fundamentals of the job. In short - when you know just a few words - you get right to the point.
 
I reasoned the following: with Bridgette's good will, her obvious grasp of the subject matter and her tendency to get right to the point - she might be persuaded to tutor me. I advanced the proposal, we agreed on a rate and I proceeded to submit myself to her instruction. During the tutoring periods, Bridgette transformed from a school-girl with an uncle to an instructor with a big stick and a burning mission to remedy ignorance.
 
I scored a fifty percent on the fourth test. I was still failing, but got about fifteen points above the previous score. I felt that I could see a glimmer of light in my intellectual fog.
 
 About that time, I was in the library and another young lady spoke to me. She said she recognized me from the same class that I was struggling with. She was pretty and radiated self-confidence.  She asked me how I was doing and I told her quite frankly that I was thus far failing. She responded with a patronizing smile and said something like "well, I'm sure that you will do the right thing." I remembered my Grandfather telling me how he had been told to "do the right thing and move on".
 
After the fifth test, I heard that the grades had been posted outside of Doc Wayne's office. I headed that way with my heart in my throat. Doc Wayne overtook me with his brisk tall soldier's stride. As he passed me he murmured "looks like you just got up!"
 
I had scored a good strong 'B'. My plan - along with Bridgette's refusal to let me do anything but stay on task - was beginning to pay off. I looked up from the scores to see the young lady from the library emerging from the professor's office. Her eyes were downcast and she was crying.
 
When I got to the class Doc Wayne had an announcement.  He began with: "Some of you are wondering why you got a '999' on your test.  Well, that is computer code for 'end of program'." He went on to explain that he had made two different copies of the test. The copies were interleaved so that when tests were passed out from the beginning of each row, every student had to the right and to the left someone with the alternate copy. The tests were multiple choice and were corrected with a template laid over a test. When test answers were mostly wrong and the alternate template was used and most answers showed as correct, it proved that the student had been copying from their neighbors and they were summarily given the '999'. They were thus discharged from the class for cheating. It had never occurred to me to copy from Bridgette.
 
In one fell swoop Doc Wayne expelled close to 10 percent of a class of about 200. I took several more classes from him. I never again heard about cheating in his classes. 
 
I got an 'A' in the final. Doc Wayne called me into his office afterwards. He appeared irritated. He had a PHD but still talked like a soldier.  He said "You earned an 'A'. The final was cumulative and you demonstrated an 'A' level of comprehension for the subject. But I'm not tenured yet and the sonsabitches that run this department are going to have fits if I give you an 'A' with those first four failing grades. So how in the hell do you feel about a 'B'?"
 
I replied "I'm so happy with a 'B' that I could just ...." well, never mind.
 
I'm going to drink a toast for the cheaters, because in their own way, they teach us something. And here's another one to the crabby old soldiers and the immigrants. 
 
Au revoir!