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May 15, 2016

I Earned My D

I Earned My D

FAMILY SUNDAY – The tutoring industry in Manhattan costs parents anywhere from $75 to $500 an hour from what I have heard. I also read this story that ran in the New York Post today about how parents are paying tutors to dumb-down their essays so their kids can submit them as if they wrote them.

My sister and I were joking around the other night while sitting with a mother who went to Horace Mann and hated school. The woman said she never did her homework. Her parents were always so frustrated with her. I said, “So if you didn’t do your homework, you failed, right?” She said no. She said she had tutors and homework helpers so eventually the work got done. She also said that as a mother of two young kids, studies show that life decisions in education at 2-5 years old, have a significant impact on the success of individuals later in life. (Note that happiness and success are two separate categories.) My sister and I burst out laughing, and said this is certainly not true for two women in the room. I’m not going to rate my level of success, but I will brag about my sister’s. Meghan is the head of North American sales at her big corporate company that I cannot name or she will freak out, because, well, it’s a big corporate gig and they’re not supposed to brag, even about the top-performing women in their international company run by one of the most famous and success people in the world. We told the woman that we, as students at the Main Avenue School on Main Avenue in Wynantskill, NY, did our homework on our own. Later in middle school, if we needed help in math, Dad helped, but he was an actuary, so it felt like he was 100 times smarter than we were, and eventually he just got frustrated with us. He sometimes graded extra questions he made for us, then checked it later that night and left a grade for us to see at breakfast, along with an “I love you” if we did well. If we didn’t, I don’t even know what he said or did. He was up at night – tutorless – writing these crazy actuarial formulas on big index cards so he could pass his next actuarial exam.

I didn’t even know how smart my dad was until I went to Northwestern and my roommate was a math whiz. She told me and I was like, “Oh, great. None of his kids inherited any of it.”

I don’t remember anyone in my class at Troy High School having a tutor—not the kids in AP nor the kids in the “regular” classes.
We went in for extra help when we needed it, especially around finals, yes, but I don’t remember all this special hiring and attention, let alone the tutors writing and submitting papers for kids as young as junior high.

Even after a horrible first quarter at Northwestern, I did not have or need a tutor until my fifth year at Northwestern. It was for Economics – either Micro or Macro. All I had to get was a D. That was not easy for me, a journalism major. For my first economics class, I think I took it pass/fail, but I could not graduate without taking an econ class for a grade. I remember my academic advisor telling me this, and breaking out into tears in the office. I was just so bad at econ, and it was so boring and meaningless. It was quite possible for me to fail. We both knew it.

For my first class, I remember being in a big lecture hall with a professor who had worked for Ronald Reagan. I could not follow anything, but I think I just guessed and was lucky. The Professor cold-called on names in the class to check if we were present. I remember he asked a hard question and called out, “Holohan.” I thought for sure I was going to humiliate myself, so I honestly told myself, “Don’t say anything. Pretend you are not here.”

Then the female sitting next to me answered the question. A classmate named Colleen Holohan saved me, and she didn’t even know it.

After she answered it, I was going to thank her.  Then I realized I may get called on again, and it was better if she represented the extended Irish clan.

When I had to take the class for a grade, it was during a tough time. I was bummed about our mediocre hoops season where we went 14-14. It had been the first time in my life I was on a team that was that close to having a losing season. Second, I was chasing around a supremely-talented and fun subject named Kevin Garnett to finish a story I wrote on him during his senior year at Farragut High School. I also started dating a fun guy who went with me to many of the games. When I was finished with my version of the Garnett, Sports Illustrated hired me to help find him for their version. We didn’t find him – I told the magazine that all of my sources said he was in South Carolina. They still paid me to help.

Every time I went to see my wonderful economics tutor, Jonathan Powers, we covered the latest and greatest about Kevin Garnett. I do think that all of this came to a head after the Big Ten Tournament. We lost to Indiana in a tight game. I remember that during the season, my teammate, Christina Braden, helped me with my economics homework on the bus more than once. I couldn’t believe how smart she was – taking my homework, never having had an economics class, and just picking apart how to solve the problems. I looked at her more than once with no words as she drew in my notebook, and barely broke any mental sweat while getting to the correct answers. With a tremendous amount of intelligence and patience, she basically looked back at me and shrugged as if it was all common sense. I think you know you go to a great university when your sophomore teammate who has never taken an econ class can do your homework with you. Yet I knew that I was hanging on by the skin of my teeth come test time, and my fate rested on my performance on the final exam. I remember seeing Jonathan Powers for 3-4 times that week. He knew how much the stress was building. I didn’t have to pay for the sessions – the athletics department did (another huge perk). Jonathan, like Christina, was so patient with me.

When I returned home, I covered my apartment with notebook paper and index cards. I kept putting them down, and picking them up. It was clear by then with no exceptions, that if I did not pass, I would have to wait until the fall to take the class again, which meant that I would not graduate after five years of being at Northwestern. The humiliation would have been awful. Even worse, if I failed, I would not be able to travel to play ball overseas. I’d have to stay in Evanston and find a way to take the class again, pass it and pay for it.

When the test result came back, I opened up the sheet and saw a D. I ran to see Jonathan Powers, who was gathered with his peers in the Econ Department. He saw me and stopped everything.

“I GOT A D!!!!” I said.

He jumped up and gave me a double high five. I thanked him over and over until I realized his peers were looking at me, the intellectually-challenged jock. I told them I had other things on my mind. The Big Ten tourney, Kevin Garnett, Sports Illustrated, my hoops dream. All I needed was a D and we got it! They winced and went back to their work. They probably thought Jonathan knew my professor’s assistant or the teacher’s assistant. I didn’t know anything for sure except that after years of getting As or close in the hardest journalism classes in the country, I was able to eek out a D in econ.

I stayed in touch with Jonathan for a few years. If it weren’t for Jonathan and Christina, my teammate, I don’t know if I would have made it through. I’m also going to say that I don’t think I would have made it through without covering my apartment with notecards, like my father did, and flipping through them time and time again.

Maureen Holohan is a former All-Big Ten Basketball Player, published author, writer and director of