To the beat of silly, bluegrass music the well-trained dolphins jumped through hoops, danced in circles, and splashed water upon those brave enough to sit in the first four rows. For thirty minutes the trainers, and their trainees, captured our attention creating an image of wonder and excitement. The annual trip to see the dolphin show at Marine World became my favorite part of summer.
In time, after our many visits to Marine World, I became pre-occupied and obsessed with anything and everything dolphin. I checked out dolphin books at the library, wrote reports about dolphins in school, hung dolphin posters in my bedroom, doodled dolphins on scratch paper, even lounged in “dolphin” shorts every day in summer. I was drawn to those effervescent, & seemingly friendly creatures, and aspired to a career working with them in some form or fashion.
By the fall of my senior year in high school, during the time college applications were due, my friends were applying to as many colleges as possible or to as many as their family’s budget would allow. I, on the other hand, had a different mindset. Like many teenagers filled with hope and aspiration, I didn’t give my college choice much thought beyond what my heart had already desired. My naivete had a full grip on my thought process, without heeding any guidance from mediocre report cards or SAT scores. Ultimately I would put all my eggs into one basket. I applied to just one school; the school I believed would advance my dream to work with dolphins. For me it could only be: UC San Diego & The Scripps Institution of Oceanography, or bust.
During the later-half of my senior year, after an agonizing four-month wait, an envelope from: “The Office of Admissions at UC San Diego” had finally arrived in the mail. Inside the envelope was a letter with mixed news: I was accepted to their campus under three conditions: I had to maintain my GPA for the remainder of the year, get an “A” in Advanced Biology, and at least a “B−” in English. I felt confident that getting an “A” in Advance Biology was achievable, considering it was the subject I liked most, taught by a lenient teacher who routinely offered extra credit to bump up grades. On the other hand, earning at least a “B-” in my English class, which was taught by Mr. Larry Johsens-one of the toughest teachers at Saratoga High-would be much more challenging.
Mr. Johsens was a rare combination of likability and toughness. On the one hand he was very laid back and easygoing. During book discussions he leaned back in his chair, hands clasped behind his neck, legs stretched out in the center of the room. The timbre of his baritone voice matched his cool and collected demeanor. On the other hand Mr. Johsens was strict. He set high expectations and standards for his students. He was unimpressed with fancy book-report covers, or essays filled with superfluous word count. He valued excellent writing skills, rewarding quality over quantity. He was considered a tough grader by nearly every senior enrolled in his classes. It was rumored that only two or three students were able to earn an “A” in his class each semester. I was concerned that my lack of enthusiasm for reading and writing, coupled with Mr. Josen’s strict grading policy, might sink my chances for getting that “B-” or better in English.
By mid-April things were going swimmingly in my Advanced Biology class, but unfortunately things weren’t going so well over in my English class. No matter how hard I tried, or how much extra time I spent doing homework, I was getting one “C” after another…after another. The sting was made even worse knowing that my older brother sailed through Mr. Johsen’s class the year prior, and was the recipient of one of those coveted “A”s.
With a sense-of-urgency that couldn’t be quelled (and bordered on panic), I went to see Mr. Josens after school hoping for answers. Choked up and teary, I sat and listened. He explained that writing a good essay was tough. It wouldn’t always come easy. Some students have “it”, most don't. The "it factor," as he called it, was the ability to write in such a way where everything flowed together from one sentence to the next. Having "it" (he gestured using air quotes) wasn't necessarily a reflection of effort. He told me that quality was more important than quantity. He couldn’t care less if I turned in a ten-page paper, if I could get it done in two he would be more impressed. “Be succinct...engage the reader.” he said. Although I asked for a solution and a remedy to combat those chain of “C”s, he could only give me advice. He knew I was frustrated, but the art of writing wasn’t going to happen overnight. He told me, “Never Give Up. The best thing you can do for yourself is keep writing, and read an hour every, single, day.” He predicted that if I followed his simple advice, one day a light bulb would go off in my head. It would be the point when I could write freely without thinking about formulas and writing steps. It would be an epiphany, and I would just know when I had obtained the “it” factor. As much as I appreciated the time he took to meet with me, I didn’t have time to wait for that “epiphany.” I needed to get my grade up NOW, for time was ticking away.
For the next month-and-a-half I poured my heart and soul into the final, heavily-weighted, persuasive essay. Every day after school I went to the library to research and take notes about the health hazards associated with smoking cigars and cigarettes. Resorting to the style I knew best, and against the advice of Mr. Johsens, I settled for quantity over quality. Plowing through a stack of 100 flashcards, and investing at least 30 hours of time, I turned in my 25-page persuasive essay after a night with no sleep. Because of the time it would take my teacher to read and grade over 150 papers, I wouldn’t know the results of my final grade until after I graduated.
In early July, nearly a month after graduation, my last report card finally arrived in the mail. The direction I would take in the fall would hinge on this one piece of paper. With nervous anticipation I peeled open the report card, hoping for the best. The first grade at the top of the list was for Advanced Biology. I was relieved I got that much-needed “A.” My eyes skipped over the new few subjects...Civics, Physics, Orchestra, and Auto Shop...and locked onto the last subject of the last row: English 4A. I took a deep breath and hesitated. Eventually I found the courage to look right at the column of grades. There it was in big, bold, font..C+..."C+?...This can’t be right! There had to be a mistake!" I screamed. But in reality there was no mistake. The grade was the grade. My heart sank, I was shocked and devastated. What about all those sleepless nights working on that persuasive essay, or that long discussion with Mr. Johsens, or all those days thinking about and worrying about my English grade? At the end of the day it didn't matter, because ultimately I came up short by a half-grade. It was only a matter of time that the official denial letter from UCSD would follow.
In the blink of an eye my world came crashing down. I ran to my bedroom, threw myself onto my bed and cried non-stop for the next few hours. I was crushed. Up until now I hadn’t asked myself the “What if you don’t get in?” question. I had no Plan B, or Plan C, I simply had no plan. As a result, the proverbial basket where I had put all my eggs, was now full of broken shells and dashed dreams.
For the next 24 hours I allowed myself to grieve. But when the tears dried up, and I got tired listening to the same Journey and Foreigner songs over and over, I put an end to my pity party. Crying about it at this point would just be an exercise in futility. Dreams awaited me. I wasn’t willing to give up. There might be another way, I thought. I could give it another shot and appeal the decision, but an appeal would only be viable if I could get that lousy C+ raised to a higher grade. The person who held the key to that possibility was none other than Mr. Johsens.
Immediately my sense-of-urgency clicked back into high gear. I needed to get a hold of Mr. Johsens ASAP. The next day I woke up early and drove down to the school hoping for an opportunity to talk with him. Although the school office was open, the door to Mr. Johsen’s class was locked. Panicked, I ran back to the office. The administrators told me Mr. Johsens didn’t teach summer school, and was on summer break until early September. That was too late! I poured out my soul and told them my story of woe. I asked for his phone number, but they declined. Giving out private information wasn’t allowed. No matter how much I begged, no matter how many tears streamed down my face, they wouldn't budge. But seeing how upset and anxious I was, they at least agreed to give him a phone call to let him know I was trying to get in touch. They warned, however, there were no guarantees, he was on his summer vacation after all.
The next day, much to my surprise, I received the much-anticipated phone call from the man who I both admired and feared. After hearing the plight of my situation he agreed to drive 45 minutes “over the hill” (Silicon Valley lingo indicating he was coming from Santa Cruz), to retrieve my final essay and final exam that were stored inside his classroom. He would look them over to see if there were any grading errors. “No guarantees” he said, mimicking the same admonitions from the front office.
A few days later I got yet another, unexpected, phone call from Mr. Johsens. He told me he took the time to read over both my final essay and final exam. He didn’t say anything beyond that, other than he wanted to meet with me and the principal at the end of the week.
The day of reckoning had finally come. By now it was mid August. Some of my friends were already packing up to leave for college, while I was stuck in no-man’s-land, dealing with grade changes and appeals. I sat outside the principal’s office fidgeting in my seat for nearly an hour, while Mr. Johsens and our principal were behind closed doors discussing me and my situation. I didn’t know what they could be talking about for this long, but what I did know was this was the most nervous I had ever been my entire life.
Eventually I was asked to join Mr. Johsens and the principal for a very long discussion; a discussion I will never forget, one I hold near and dear to my heart, but one I will forever keep private. Keeping true to himself, Mr. Johsens never sacrificed his integrity. I respected that then, and even more now. Without divulging the details of that special meeting, I walked out….er skipped out... of the school office that day as happy and joyful as I could have ever imagined. I was given a second chance, and the opportunity of a lifetime. Shortly thereafter my denial was overturned, and my acceptance to attend The University of California, at San Diego & The Scripps Institute of Oceanography was granted.
Fast forward to my junior year of college. On the first day of my Comparative Physiology class the professor announced that each of us had to write a research paper, due by the end of the quarter. I thought back to my senior year in high school. The memory of that persuasive essay/ C+ grade debacle was not lost on me. I was nervous that history might repeat itself. A few months later, after investing an enormous amount of time in the library researching the hibernating patterns of a Dormouse, I began the writing portion of my project. Instead of the usual dread that came with writing essays, something felt different this time. Somehow my pen was moving quickly across the paper. The words flowed from one sentence to another. I knew when it was time to expand on an idea, or when it was time to indent and start a new paragraph. The topic sentence, the supporting paragraphs, the conclusion...they were all there in perfect order, executed with the same ease as riding a bicycle for the 100th time. A light bulb went off in my head. It dawned on me that the ease of writing on this particular occasion was the “a-ha” moment Mr. Johsens had talked about. Perhaps the volume of reading I invested as required by my classes (far exceeding the “one hour” a night rule), and overcoming my writing phobia by writing letters to family and friends several times a week, had finally paid off. There was no doubt in my mind that I had finally gotten "IT."
Not long after my epiphany, I wrote to Mr. Josens thanking him for all he did for me, and letting him know I had reached a sort-of writing “nirvana.” His sage advice and insights helped shape me and my future. Leading by example he taught me not to settle for mediocrity or complacency. He encouraged me to challenge myself and the process. He helped me find the answers, not by feeding them to me, but getting me to think outside the box and reinforcing the notion that you have to put in the time. But it was the qualities of determination and resolve that Mr. Johsens reinforced and ultimately rewarded, that I came to appreciate most. For every dream I have followed to fruition, for every success or accomplishment I have earned, and for every battle or cause I have fought or continue to fight, there is no other element that has been more valuable to me than perseverance.
Although I never became that dolphin researcher that I had longed to be when I was sixteen, it was my journey with Mr. Johsens, and the life lessons he imparted on me, that became far more important. Although after college I never saw or heard from Mr. Johsens again, and only recently did I learn of his passing, I will never forget the gifts of opportunity and hope he bestowed on me back in the summer of ‘82. Rest in peace Mr. Johsens. Rest in peace...