When I was a sophomore in college, I took a class called PSC 204, Organizational Theory. The class was an introduction into pubic personal administration, which is essentially all about managing the public sector. On day one, my professor, Norman Baldwin, had the class make the rules we were all to abide by throughout the semester. My fellow students and I decided that there should be no attendance policy as we were all adults capable of managing our own affairs.
I counted myself lucky, because Professor Baldwin taught the same class at another time, and his second class decided that there should be a strict attendance policy – one that stated that after three missed classes your grade would be docked by three percentage points for every subsequent absence.
I was fortune enough to find org theory to be both painfully obvious and blissfully easy course work. Because of this, I didn’t always find attending class to be the most beneficial use of my time (especially since the class began at 9:00 am). I would make it to class about 50 percent of the time, wait until the last minute to begin writing papers or working on assignments, and I coasted through the class. I decided I didn’t really need to study for the final since I calculated that I would walk away with a low B even if I tanked it, which I didn’t.
So as final grades came in, I saw that for PSC 204 my grade was a pathetic D-. I knew immediately that this grade was wrong, so I emailed Professor Baldwin letting him know he needed to fix my grade. I expected him to reply with “oh I’m so sorry I made a mistake and will fix it right away”, but what he did instead was so beautiful I will never forget it.
He replied that he did make a mistake – he thought I was in his other class with the strict attendance policy. He said he would correct my grade to an A-, and then he emphatically told me it was a grade he did not think I deserved. He told me he took notice of how well I did in his class despite my high number of absences, and he told me it did not impress him.
“You put in zero effort, and as a result you got zero returns. You do not deserve an A in my class, and if it was up to me you would receive a failing grade…You are not living up to your potential; you could be doing so much more. You wasted my time, but more importantly you wasted yours. You are foolish to believe that there was nothing to be learned from attending my class, even if the lesson was one of leadership through instructing your fellow students…”
I believe that I stared at my computer screen for a full minute, mouth agape, after reading his email. My first reaction was audacity – who does this man think he is to tell me what I am and am not capable of! I tried to shake it off, but his words stuck to me like cat hair to a sweater. No one had ever told me I could do more, while I was exceeding expectations. A high GPA – that’s the point of college isn’t it? Yet still, I could not stop hearing the soft echo of you can do more. And as quickly as flipping a switch, I was suddenly dissatisfied and bored, and eager to challenge myself to something I hadn’t ever considered possible for myself.
Next thing I knew, I was fumbling through cover letters and phone interviews trying to secure an internship in DC. I look back now and laugh at the memory of me trying to convince interviewers that my zero amount of experience made me perfect for the (unpaid) job. Failure after abysmal failure did not dissuade me from my efforts, and after knocking on 1,000 doors, one finally opened for me. That internship led to another, which led to a paid job in grassroots organizing, and then to another. I did not realize it at the time, but Professor Norman Baldwin’s email was a great tipping point in my life. This single man’s words changes the trajectory of my life, for which my gratitude transcends the dome of the sky.
He did so ironically, give me a great lesson in leadership. He invested in me the time it takes to write an email, and it quite literally changed my life. The making of a good leader is one who cultivates leadership in others, which seems to me something of a dying and undervalued art. With fewer words than I used to sing his praises here, he saved me from the mediocrity I didn’t know I was drowning in.
I send my words out into the world with more caution now that I understand how powerful they are. It is impossible to know how many people we have impacted and in what ways, but never forget – you can change someone’s life in the time it takes to send an email.