My high school grades were good enough to secure a place in medicine at UCT. But I didn’t want to be a doctor. Nor an engineer or a scientist. A BA was too soft an option and law meant another year of Latin. Architecture required skills in drawing I did not possess. That left a Bachelor of Business Science degree.
With lectures from 8.30 am to 1 pm and practicals or tutorials most afternoons, the first six months of my program were full on. I would have finished classes at noon if the Maths lecturer assigned to the course – a PhD who taught at breakneck speed – hadn’t lost me after a week. I’d heard about another lecturer, a lesser qualified person but with a good reputation for teaching. So every day I pitched up at Dr Becker’s class to sign the attendance register and a few hours later joined Mr Strong’s to learn calculus.
Unfettered by school uniforms, rules and regulations, I started to experiment. After tipping a bottle of peroxide over my head I waited to see if there was any truth in the notion that gentlemen preferred blondes. It wasn’t long before my roots started to show and I had to decide between topping up the colour or abandoning my research. Over the four months that it took the dye to grow out, I lived with the ignominy of two-tone hair.
It seemed that all the cool people lit up. As I joined their ranks, I learnt how to blow rings and flick ash like a pro. Smoking didn’t make any difference to my popularity so before the year was out I gave up my five-a-day habit.
Most lunch times I spent at the main canteen in the Otto Beit Building, a cavern-like space with dark wood panelling that reverberated to the sound of the latest pop hits. The menu would have made a dietitian’s liver quiver. The outcomes included letting out a notch in my pants’ waist and adding another to the totem pole of my dwindling self-esteem.
The canteen was also where I started to form bonds with students on my course. Like the joke-cracking Boris Savvas who, due to an error in registering his birth name, was officially known as Voris. His laconic mate Dimitri Coutras, the always grinning Eli Rabinowitz and his lanky pal Phillip Levy, and the sweet Vicki Palte who invited me to her wedding. There were others I admired from a distance, like June Rabinowitz who not only excelled at Economics, but had a slim figure, long straight hair and a boyfriend.
On the first day of class the Economics lecturer, Myra Mark, had said, ‘look to the left, look to the right; one of you will not pass at the end of the year’. As I struggled to understand the theory of the firm and that countries could spend themselves out of trouble, I saw myself becoming one of the 133 students who would not progress to Economics 2. Feedback on early assignments reinforced this. Half way through the year I approached a final-year student for help; in the space of a few sessions, Laurence Tyfield did what my lecturers and tut masters couldn’t: he unlocked the door on understanding. My grades improved, along with my self-esteem. By the end of the year my marks were into the 70 per cent range and when I saw the questions on the exam paper, I was confident that I would pass.
I was at an inter-varsity swimming competition in Durban when the results started to trickle in. In June I’d scraped over the line in the Maths. Statistics, which replaced it in the second half of the year, was a complete mystery. The fail was a fait accompli but as long as I got through the rest, I would still be on the course. Three more results came in, all passes. On the drive back to Cape Town – I think we were somewhere between East London and Port Elizabeth – I phoned home to get my Economics results. I don’t remember who it was that broke the news. I was devastated.
I went to see Brian Kantor, then a senior lecturer in the School of Economics. The conversation went something like this.
‘Could you please tell me where I went wrong in the exam, so that I can focus on areas of weakness’, I asked.
‘I am sorry, but the rules do not allow me to tell you that’, he said.
‘So can you tell me what my mark was?’
‘No, I can’t do that.’
‘Was it a long way off a pass?’
‘Below 40 per cent?’
Mom offered to use influence with the Dean, Leonidas Kritzinger, whose two sons she had mentored in swimming. Even if this could have kept me on the course, I didn’t want the burden of expectation that would come with it. Besides which, I felt that the system had betrayed me.
The following year I switched to a BA and completed it and an honours year without incident. In the last year of my Masters in planning, I failed another subject which – like Economics six years before – came with no advance warning. I was given the opportunity to redeem myself by completing a six-month project, overseen by a lecturer who communicated solely by mail. The notes were savage and, a few months into the project, one of them declared that I was going to fail. As the prospect of a career slipped from my grasp, I was ready for my mother to use influence.
A little while back I pulled out my UCT academic transcripts. There were a few grades in the 60 to 69% range, but more were in the range below. I see this as a reflection of prevailing teaching methods and my level of maturity. Indeed, later study has confirmed that I was capable of doing better. But who cares? Beyond establishing that I am degree-qualified, capable of doing the work and easy to get along with, no employer has ever asked for a dissection of my university results. I would be concerned if they did.