Lessons Learned / Mike Turpin
The accidental counselor
Published 1:04 am, Thursday, April 29, 2010
People who work sitting down get paid more than people who work standing up. -- Ogden Nash
It was "career day" at San Marino High School in sunny 1977 Southern California. Our school district was determined to better illuminate for students the intricate mechanics of the working world in hopes of aligning our nascent avocations with future vocations.
In homeroom, we were asked to fill out a questionnaire designed to ascertain our strengths, weaknesses, passions and peccadilloes. The teachers and counselors were told to take this process very seriously and I can distinctly recall being reprimanded during the assessment as I rolled my eyes at the questions.
1. Which words best describe you: a) follower b) leader;
2. Your best work environment involves a) working indoors standing up; b) working indoors sitting down; c) working outdoors standing up; d) working outdoors sitting down.
I looked for the missing answer -- e. none of the above. I mean, a lot depended on if I had to sweat or walk very far to work. Did the job pay at least $4 an hour? Could I perform this task while watching TV? Would someone need to inspect my work before I could go home for the night? I needed to clarify these questions. I raised my hand.
"I don't know, Turpin." whispered my perpetually annoyed homeroom teacher, Mr. C. "Just try to find one that describes you."
"What if none of them describe me?" I chirped.
He scolded, "Don't get smart, mister. You have 15 more minutes. "
The test results were collected, tabulated and cross-referenced with your most recent grades. Together this data was somehow triangulated to provide a rich social X-ray into your potential as a contributing member of society. Once you were labeled and categorized, you were scheduled to meet with your "counselor" to discuss the findings.
My mother was highly skeptical of these educational gimmicks that periodically worked their way through our school district. Guiding four sons from elementary through high school, she had experienced every charlatan and their new age educational reforms. She had seen them all -- the "academics," the "socialists" and the 26- year-old "Ivy league PhDs" -- cycling through the school district as teachers, principals and superintendents. She distrusted profiling tests that attempted to pigeonhole a child early in their development -- especially during sophomore year where most kids were still trying to understand rudimentary geometry and the deep mysteries of the opposite sex.
My career and college counselor tripled as a social studies teacher, driver's education instructor and junior varsity baseball coach. He was a nice, slow-moving brontosaurus and clearly not the sharpest pencil in the drawer. Personally, I was delighted that my JV baseball coach was my ombudsman to the real world. We never really discussed work, college or even what my father did. We just talked baseball. Time would fly as we chatted about the Dodgers and our own JV team. Suddenly, he would glance up at the clock and say, "Oops, time's up. Better get you to fifth period. See you at practice."
On the day of my career day debrief, I received a packet that explained the testing methodology. I was excited. Perhaps the results would be my burning bush in life -- revealing to me my predisposition to be an entertainment czar or an international import/export mogul. I went into Coach's office where he sat, feet on his desk nursing a mug of coffee with the word "Coach" stenciled on its side.
"Well, Turpin, let's see what we have here."
He opened to an official-looking testing scorecard that was pre-populated with graphs, charts and complicated percentages. He looked at the report as if it were written in German. He clearly had no clue what the bar charts and median scores meant. I held my breath. "So, it says here, let's see, that you -- should really consider a career as a fish and game warden."
I waited for more but that was it.
"You know coach, my dad's in advertising; does it say anything about that? I'm also a pretty good artist and I actually like English."
He seemed stumped that I had not just accepted my fate. He hesitated and handed me a brochure that said "Fish and Game Warden -- A life of adventure."
Everyone had been talking all day about careers. The girl behind me was going to be in international fashion. The straight A, math savant in the front row of my geometry class was going to be a banker. And moi? I was going to arrest people for illegal fires, and not carrying a fishing license.
I initially did not say anything at dinner that night but I was worried. I had been pre-programmed by my father to believe that a vocation involving a shovel, heavy machinery or a shirt with my name stenciled on it was a vine that would bear limited fruit. Success did not come from sitting in a fire tower glancing across an ocean of evergreens looking for a puff of smoke. I did not tell my mother, but as usual, she found out. She had found the crumpled Fish and Game warden brochure in my blue jeans' pocket. She confronted me and I promptly spilled my troubled guts. She listened intently but was secretly seething. She was clearly concerned that Coach was slated to also be my "college counselor."
It was at this moment that she privately declared war on the school district and their college admissions counseling program. To protect her boys and their friends, she would go into business for herself as a college applications consultant. In retrospect, it was a brilliant move for a woman who had subordinated much of her own life to keeping four potential felons on the straight path toward college. Her "competition" were part-time educators and overworked, multi-tasking idealists. Marketing would not be a problem. She was already somewhat of a micro-celebrity among other women in our town for her candor and pragmatism in dealing with boys.
Over next 10 years years, she took on hundreds of surrogate children and their parents as clients. She learned every loophole, admissions officer preference, essay styles and moods of universities across the country. She also could divine within the first hour of meeting a kid those oh so important intangibles -- was the kid an over achiever or underachiever? Was he/she spending too much time smoking in the east parking lot? Did they have undetected learning disabilities? She could tell who was mature enough to handle a larger university and which kid would be likely never to be heard from again if they entered the Greek system of some massive state school.
She was tough and candid with her protégés but admired by the kids and parents alike. There was only one casualty -- my father, who could not understand her need to work and fill his home with teenagers after he had worked so hard to get them out. He kept urging her to sell her business or quit. Her hours were killing him -- as she was often unavailable to cook him dinner or talk when he staggered in from a business trip. He tried to put his foot down. She simply ignored him.
The worm turned one spring when my father decided to join an exclusive business lunch and dinner club in Los Angeles. It would be the perfect place to host clients and it was close to his office. Yet, what was supposed to be an application formality had suddenly become, at best, a 50/50 chance for admission when my dad's contact on the new member committee had quit. His membership sponsor apologized. He simply could no longer promise success with so many applicants -- many of whom had better contacts than my dad.
The fateful afternoon arrived when my father sat down to lunch with the membership committee. He did not know a single person. There would be no one to vouch for his character or citizenship. A sense of gloom came over him as he realized his application would most likely be rejected. The serious chairman of the committee leered at him and hesitated. He looked perplexed as if he was trying to jog his memory. "Turpin, Turpin, Turpin. Your wife isn't Ruth Turpin, is it?"
My father stammered, "Y-e-s. Ruth is my wife."
"Well fellahs," said the gruff chairman with a grin, "this man's wife helped get my daughter into Stanford. The least I can do is let her husband into the California Club."
That night he arrived home and sheepishly recounted the story to my mom. He never uttered a disparaging word about her business again. He finally understood that helping all these kids was her sweet revenge on life and the school district as well as her personal antidote to the emotional trauma of an empty nest. To this day, a year does not go by that someone will come up to me or one of my brothers with a quizzical look and say, "Turpin, Turpin, Turpin. Is your mom, Ruth?"
And not a fish and game warden to be found.