I had always done well in school, all the way back to grade school. It always came easy to me. But at the same time, I wasn't obsessed with good grades. I liked reading and doing well in school, but I also liked cracking up my buddies and playing street hockey and listening to music.
My younger brother, on the other hand, always had his nose buried in a book. He was so smart as a young'un that he skipped first grade. My dad used to say I was the smarter one but I didn't try, whereas my brother worked harder and got better grades. I don't buy that assessment. I just think we applied ourselves differently. I was always looking for a good time, and he was driven to succeed academically. My sixth-grade teacher Mr. Grummett had a great line in one of my report cards: "Jay needs to keep his smart remarks to himself."
Fast forward to high school. I had bounced around to four different schools in three years. By the time I got to New Hampshire, the pressure was on to make new friends. And I did, but I also started goofing off in class more, making even more "smart remarks" than before. My biology teacher told my parents that I was a good student, but I was spending too much time hanging out with the "wrong element." John Hughes movies portrayed high school kids as belonging to rigid cliques, but I found that to be a gross oversimplification: I was a dork who played sports and hung out with stoners as well as preppies. It was the best of all worlds. I was on track to be the school valedictorian, but a C in a computer programming course put me two points behind the top student at the end of senior year.
But when it came to deciding about college and what I wanted to major in, I honestly didn't give it much thought. My dad was an engineer, so I decided to declare as a chemical engineering major, like it was the family business or something. I liked chemistry and all, but it wasn't like I was passionate about it. It just seemed like something I should do.
I wish someone had advised me otherwise. All the moving around put me behind in math classes; I had never taken any pre-calculus in high school. At the freshman orientation at UNH in June, I asked if I should take a summer course in pre-calc to prepare me for the fall, but was told I didn't need to. So I enjoyed my last summer before college and showed up that fall thoroughly unprepared for life as a Chem E. major. I had an ass-kicker of a courseload, starting at 8 a.m. Monday/Wed./Friday with calculus, chemistry and physics one after the other. And then there the labs. Oh, and I also had a intro to English course. It didn't take long for me to realize I had made the wrong decision. My calc professor assumed we had all taken some sort of pre-calc and was going 100 mph right from the start. I was lost on day 1 and never caught up. Physics wasn't much better, and I was struggling in chemistry.
And sure, I started drinking that first weekend and continued, but I studied a lot. By November, I knew I was in trouble. One night I lay in bed pondering my future and realized it wasn't going to be as an engineer. I thought about what I could do, and journalism popped into my head. I had worked on the high school paper senior year, and while I never really took it seriously at the time, I had always been a pretty good writer. Even then, I knew it wasn't a high-paying career, but dammit, I was okay with that. So at 2 a.m. on that night in November 1985, I sat up and decided to change my major immediately and the next day, I got the process started.
Of course, there was still the matter of the last month or so of the semester. I ended up with a pitiful 1.08 grade point average: Fs in calculus and physics, a D in chemistry and an A- in...yep, English. I got a letter from UNH saying I was on academic probation; I had to go in to the dean of liberal arts' office and basically plead my way back into school. It was a long way to fall for someone who six months earlier was giving a well-received speech as salutatorian of his high school class. And then I had to back to school to pick up my scholarship check; I could hardly look my old principal in the face when he asked me how I was doing. And of course, my parents were none too pleased. Indian kids were supposed to do well in school. All in all, it was a pretty humiliating few months.
So back to school I went in January as a new English/Journalism major, taking liberal arts electives and actually enjoying myself. I also wisely took courses that started in the late morning or afternoon, since I was staying up late every night. By the end of that semester, I had a 3.08 GPA and was on track to a future that actually seemed bright. I took my first newswriting courses the following year and joined the school paper as a reporter in February 1987, which is when my journalism career really began.
Living in the dorm, we all had little white boards on our doors for folks to leave messages on (obviously, this was before the days of email, cell phones and the Internet). I used to write a quote of the day on my board (yeah, I know, dorky) and one day I used the line from Van Halen's "And the Cradle Will Rock": "Have you seen Junior's grades?" Of course, one of my wiseass buddies crossed out "Junior's" and replaced it with "Kumar's."
Of course, it was second semester and I could laugh at it because I had turned my academic career around by that point. Thanks to a little late-night epiphany. I'm sure glad I didn't decide to become a stockbroker.