I was a pretty typical, cocky high-school freshman some mumblety years ago: I was sure I had the system figured out, and thought I was ready for anything. Being interested in science, I signed up for Biology I. I had no idea what was about to happen to me…
My teacher, Mr. Holderman, was an imposing man with a ready, infectious laugh, but he could turn deadly serious in a nanosecond, so one was always on one’s toes around him. In addition to regular quizzes, pop quizzes, assignments, and exams, a hefty portion of the grade in his courses came from projects. He assigned the work for each project with clear instructions, but didn’t tell us one crucial detail when assigning the first project for each course: doing the minimum work would only earn a student a C. He expected us to go above and beyond if we wanted to earn a better grade.
Not knowing this, I completed my project brimming with confidence: I had an A in the class so far, the work was straightforward, and I thoroughly enjoyed the course, so what could possibly go wrong? As Mr. Holderman returned the project binders—face down so that no one could see the grade on the front page—I watched as several of my classmates turned their binders over, flushed crimson, and frowned. Confident in my work, I smugly assured myself that I wouldn’t follow suit… until I turned my binder over and saw a C under my name.
My cheeks now flushed as red as many of my friends’, I listened as Mr. Holderman told us that most of us had completed the assigned work satisfactorily… and that was C-level work. To earn—and he emphasized the word earn—a B or an A, our work needed to be “good” or “excellent” respectively. We needed to go above and beyond what he had set out as the project’s requirements.
That first project was the only one on which I earned a C in that class. In considering ideas for extra work for subsequent projects, I found I enjoyed exploring more deeply the specific topics that interested me, as well as trying to find creative ways to present the material to him. Both of these activities deepened and broadened my understanding of the course material, and solidified my love of learning for the sake of learning. I went on to take two more courses with Mr. Holderman, and of course I didn’t forget that painful lesson: I never earned below an A on any project in his classes after that first one.
In the last course I took with Mr. Holderman during my senior year, our last project got delayed for reasons that are lost in the mists of time. I held on to the slides I’d created for decades—through multiple moves across the United States and even a brief stint in México—because I was certain that he’d be in touch with us to complete that work some day. I discovered somewhere along the way that I wasn’t alone in doing that, for the very same reason. None of my friends wanted to disappoint Mr. Holderman by not having our work.
For this lesson alone—and there were many similar lessons he taught us, as well as the course material he was responsible for teaching us—Mr. Holderman has been the most influential teacher in my life to date. To fully comprehend what that means, after graduating high school, I invested over a decade of my life pursuing higher education, including earning a doctoral degree and much later, a certificate in massage therapy. I’ve had a lot of teachers over the years!
I cannot honestly say that I’ve consistently applied Mr. Holderman’s advice throughout my life; but I can say that every time I have gone above and beyond what’s been expected of me—whether in an academic endeavor or in any of the many jobs I’ve held—I’ve been rewarded for it. In school, I’ve learned more than I would have otherwise and discovered a lot of interesting topics I probably wouldn’t have explored. In work, I realized that all jobs can be thought of as providing some kind of service to someone; and I’ve attempted to consistently deliver the highest level of service I possibly can. This attitude has even helped me be a better parent, I think; it was partly responsible for my decision to homeschool my children.
Who would have thought so much could hinge on one relatively insignificant C? I wouldn’t have dreamed of such a thing… but my freshman biology teacher, Mr. Holderman, knew. It’s a lesson that has permeated my being. The lesson was strongly reinforced later in my life by my training in karate, especially in the Traditional Karate of Bellingham dojo. But that’s a topic for another day.
I originally wrote this essay as part of a scholarship application while in my massage program. I recently found it in my archives, and since Mr. Holderman died a few years ago, I wanted to share it in tribute to him.