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Monday, March 19, 2001

When I escaped from high school hell, I breathed the biggest sigh of relief in my life. No more bullies, no more snotty social cliques, no more humiliation in gym class. But even if you're in with the cool crowd, you still had to deal with teachers and counselors and (shudder) vice-principals. It was great to be away from the stigma of being a "good student." But although I didn't realize it at the time, that wasn't even the best part of being out of school.

The best thing about being out of school, children, is not what you think it is. It's not that nobody coops you up in a room with a boatload of other people who don't want to be there any more than you do. Trust me, that's not it. It's not that you no longer have homework or papers to write or boring textbooks to scan for keywords so you can bluff your way through the test. Nope, not it either.

And if you think it's more fun to be an adult, just wait.

The very best thing about life after graduation is that nobody grades your work any more. Yes, you get evaluations, and sometimes your life or livelihood depends on them. But nobody writes an A or an F on a card that gets mailed to your parents. Nobody grades you on a curve. Right?

Well, not any more, apparently. Now big companies are grading their employees, with the object of eliminating the bottom ten or twenty percent. The trouble is that the grades or rankings are done by managers on a not-so-objective basis. No multiple choice exams or even essay questions are used to evaluate people. Just your boss's opinion of you.

That's even worse than school, because you can be fired for not meeting a standard that you don't even know exists. Who's to say your manager won't give a higher grade to someone he likes more or plays golf with, even if you're doing a better job? And how can you prove you're better, if it's just an opinion?

And please, sir, can I do some extra credit to bring up my grade?

They say that only poor students hate the grading system, but I'm here to tell you that I got mostly A's in school and it ripped me apart. I was devastated by anything less than a top score, partly because it was my only identity in school. I had no social standing whatsoever, and the only thing that distinguished me from anyone else was a good report card.

And just about the only time I got poor grades was when I had a teacher who evaluated students subjectively. Sometimes you can know the material but you just can't impress the one person whose opinion matters. (And I'm speaking of you, Miss Hansen, my tenth-grade English teacher who gave me a D on my first paper and never found the good in anything I wrote the rest of the year.)

That's about how it is when you work for a small company, with not enough employees for a grading system to make sense. You'd better be able to make yourself useful, or you don't stand much of a chance to last there. But in those cases, you have a close relationship with your co-workers, and there's less of a possibility that you'll get lost in the shuffle. If you're good, the boss probably knows it.

With big companies, there's more office politics, and you could be at the mercy of someone who doesn't really know your work well enough to judge it accurately. If all he has to go on is what kind of impression you made at last year's company picnic, you could find yourself with a failing grade you don't deserve.

So the advantages of being out of school are being phased out. After twelve years or so, you've learned how to (a) beat your brains out to stay ahead of the pack, (b) skate by on charm, luck and as little work as you can get away with, or (c) let yourself get dragged through a system that doesn't care one way or the other, as long as you're out of sight.

I wouldn't like to be starting out with a company like Ford or Microsoft these days. I'd be lost in the shuffle, just like I was in high school, no matter how hard I worked to get those A's. If you want to be part of the in crowd, you have to play their game. You have to say and do (and wear) the right thing, or you'll be eating lunch all by yourself.

Not to change the subject or anything, but just a few days ago, I thought this tree was dead as dead can be, don't you know.

leafy foliage

It goes to show you how impressions can change over time, and you can't judge a tree by how its branches look in the winter. Or something like that.

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