Twenty-five years ago, a teacher threw me a lifeline that changed the trajectory of my career.
It happened when I was applying to universities. I don't know how exactly it works these days, but back then, your mid-term grades for your O.A.C. (Ontario Academic Credit, or "Grade 13" courses) were automatically submitted to a central processing center. You told the center to which schools and programs you wanted to apply, and the center would send those programs your grades for consideration. That was it.
I decided I wanted to attend York University's business school; I was never one to settle for second-place, and at the time, the soon-to-be-named-Schulich school was the top-ranked business school in Canada. (For the record, The Economist says that's still true.)
I knew Schulich was a very competitive program, but I had an 87.4% highschool average and was involved in an almost unbelievable number of extracurricular activities (which top business schools generally liked to see from their applicants), so I was very confident about my chances of getting accepted.
But I didn't get in.
I was absolutely devastated. I was so convinced I'd be accepted into York's business program that I hadn't even bothered to apply to any other business schools; my second and third program selections (required by the central processing center) were the York General Arts program and a Computer Science program I had zero chance of getting into with my abysmal Calculus grade. So perhaps for the first time in my life, I didn't know what I was going to do next. Not coincidentally, I soon after became very proficient at creating multiple contingency plans for every major course of action I pursued from that day forward.
My disappointment was slightly easier for me to manage because I only had a partial course-load in my final semester; I had taken a number of O.A.C. courses in my Grade 12 year, so I only had two courses to complete that term (whereas most students had to deal with five).
But it still wasn't a great final semester for me. Most of my grades were already "final" and I knew I didn't need to maintain my high-average for York's general arts program, so I wasn't motivated to work hard and put in as little effort as possible when it came to studying for final exams.
For my Instrumental Music final exam, I decided I'd put in zero effort and sight-read the piece... meaning I looked at it for the very first time as I was being evaluated on my performance of it. My music teacher, Mr. Lettieri, with whom I had a very close relationship, was understandably shocked at the abysmal result and asked me if I was okay. I replied, "Sir, I don't give a sh*t about this exam," and walked out of the classroom. And I truly didn't.
As I mentioned, it wasn't a great final semester for me.
Towards the end of the school term, I had begrudgingly accepted my fate and arranged to visit the York campus one weekday so I could secure my Student ID for the General Arts program I'd be starting that September.
On my way back to my car on ID-pick-up day, I passed the business school building... and decided I couldn't go another day without knowing, with certainty, why I had been rejected from the school, especially when I knew two of my high school classmates had been accepted into the program with lower averages and fewer extracurricular activities.
I entered the business school's administration office, walked up to the counter and asked to speak with the Director of Admissions, who very graciously agreed to speak with me despite the fact that I had walked in unannounced and without an appointment. I explained my situation and pleaded with her to just tell me what I could have done differently as part of my application to the school. The Director clearly took pity on the desperate soul standing in front of her and agreed to have a look at my file.
She took some time to find my file, but eventually emerged from her office.
"David," she said, "you had an impressive application. You actually had the highest score of any applicant when it came to the extracurricular activities section.* But you only had an 83% average, and that just wasn't high enough..."
"Wait a minute," I interrupted. "My average was 87.4%."
"Not according to this," she said as she showed me the average they had received from that central processing center, which was below the school's minimum cut-off.
That's when we realized the central processing center had made an error with my grades.
The mechanics of how that happened are unimportant for the purposes of this story. What's important is that I had a legitimate reason to appeal the school's decision not to accept me, and the Director was willing to support my appeal due to the obvious error.
We began the appeal process immediately, and it didn't take long for the administration to decide in my favour: I was going to be accepted into York's business school!
There was just one condition. Like all successful applicants, students were required to ensure their final averages were not materially different from the mid-term grades they had submitted as part of their application.
That Instrumental Music exam I defiantly (and unsuccessfully) sight-read? It looked like that was going to be the reason York's business school rescinded my acceptance.
The next school day, I went to go find my music teacher.
"Sir, sir... I have to talk to you," I said frantically when I finally found him. He was intrigued. And he sat silently as I explained how the admissions center had made an error with my marks, how I had successfully appealed the decision and gained acceptance into the business school, and how I needed my final average to not differ significantly from my mid-term average. Then I asked, "Sir, would you please let me re-do my final exam?"
To which he quickly replied with a smirk, "You mean the one you don't give a sh*t about?"
My heart sunk. He clearly remembered my bad behaviour. And he had no reason to help me.
Then his smirk turned into a genuine smile, and he said, "Don't worry about it."
Mr. Lettieri didn't let me re-write my exam. Instead, he simply assigned me a grade that was more in-line with the marks I had earned prior to receiving my rejection letter and beginning my emotional downward-spiral. The grade he assigned me dropped my average slightly, but not enough to be material: I got into Schulich, and that was the start of my business career.
My instructor showed me some compassion and understanding when I didn't really deserve any, and he did it just because he could. I've never forgotten that.
Last week, as an instructor myself, I realized I have a chance to pay his kindness forward.
Three students in my fourth-year marketing class failed to submit their case assignments by the deadline stated in the course syllabus. They all submitted it the same day it was due, but all three assignments were inarguably late. And the syllabus clearly states (in three separate places) that late assignments will not be accepted.
Each of the students had a reason. One misunderstood when it was due. One thought the assignment had been submitted but realized it was "stuck in the system" only after I had sent a "where's your assignment" email. One has just been having a really rough year.
This assignment is worth 25% of their final grade. Mathematically, a zero on this assignment means they almost certainly won't pass the course... and thus likely won't graduate this year.
But rules are rules, and I would be well within my right to assign each of them a zero. In fact, when I posted this dilemma on my Facebook page and asked my friends what they would do in my situation, many of them thought a "zero" was the appropriate result. They said not penalizing these students wouldn't be fair to everybody who managed to get their papers in on time, and that a zero-grade would teach these three students a valuable life-lesson: in the real world, your mistakes and failures have consequences.
My friends have a point. Except, 25 years ago, my instructor taught me a different life-lesson: sometimes a little compassion can make a big difference.
I'm going to apply a penalty to each of the students who submitted their papers later; doing so will make things equitable to those who submitted their papers on time, and the penalty will be large enough to ensure that in the future, these three students will remember that deadlines are important.
But I'm not going to assign them a zero-grade.
They don't ever need to