February 10, 2009, Category: Musings

Anything for an A

reportcardGrades in High School took several years off my life. I stressed constantly about them. If I would have done my homework on time things wouldn’t have been so bad but I always put things off until the last minute or blew them off completely which turned me into a B+/A- student. This wasn’t good enough…yet I didn’t change my study habbits. As a result, I walked around with way too much stomach acid eating away at my insides.

It’s a shame too, because I love to learn and took classes that challenged me and that I would have enjoyed had I let go and freed myself to suck in knowledge. This behavior followed me through my first two years of College. Professor Allen Payne finally destroyed it.

Dr. Payne taught a literature class that I loved. He introduced me to my favorite short story of all time, St. Emmanuel the Good Martyr by Unamuno. Halfway through the quarter our class ended up talking about grades. He tried to tell us grades weren’t the most important thing and I was one of the students that argued back, grades were everything. He tried to convince us that what we learned was the most important and our priority should not be on grades but on knowledge. I told him I’d take an A rather than a B even if it meant I learned less. Grades meant scholarships. Grades meant graduate school. Grades meant success.

He thought for a minute and said, “Fine. I’m going to do an experiment. I want you all to focus on learning rather than grades. Do that and at the end of the quarter if you aren’t getting an A and want one, come and ask me. I’ll give it to you.”

At the time, it didn’t mean anything to me because I was getting an A. But when finals rolled around and I found myself swamped with all my procrastinated studying, I knew could blow off that class. I didn’t plan on doing it, at least consciously, but in the end I spent my time studying for my other classes and didn’t study for Dr. Payne’s class. I took the final and wrote on the bottom of the page, “I want to take you up on your offer, please give me an A.” I figured I’d dropped to a B+.

I felt bad about it. I respected and admired Dr. Payne and knew this would let him down. I felt like I was one of his best students and I was being a schmuck. But the A was more important. We got our tests back and he’d written on it, “if you want the A, you’ll have to come and talk to me.” Exactly what I did not want to do. But again, I needed it…so I did.

I sat down with him and he told me he really didn’t expect anyone to take him up on the offer but that two of us had. (Ironically, I met the other girl in a totally different circumstance years later…we talked, found out we were both in that class, and then confessed we’d each taken the A.) He asked me if it was really that important. I stuck to my guns. Yes it was.

The next year a strange thing happened, something changed in my need for A’s. Inside, I knew I’d sold myself out for a grade and that it was the wrong choice. (You’ll see this theme in my short story “The Prostitute”). It wasn’t who I wanted to be. I was saying and doing things that weren’t congruent with who I wanted to be. I knew learning was the objective but getting bad grades was not only embarrassing, it let people down. I had tried to cheat the system and focused on what would convince people I was something that I was not. Somehow what happened with Dr. Payne brought this out in me and I was able to grow because of it. My need for good grades dropped considerably, as did my GPA (although not so considerably). I spent more time researching things that interested me, whether they impacted my report card or not.

Years later, I took a job at that same college and paid another visit to Dr. Payne. I reminded him of the incident; sure he was still disappointed in my choice. He couldn’t remember the experiment at all. But he did say it was a very successful experiment and he was thrilled at the impact it had on me. I felt forgiven. He also said he still used my analysis on “St. Emmanual the Good Martyr” in class and even gave me a copy of it.

This experience rippled through my life and has impacted many of my choices such as my struggles with religion, relationships, and frank discussions with employers. I’ve tried to be congruent with who I really am, even when it has meant making difficult choices. I don’t always make the best choices and still sometimes sell myself out, but most of the time I feel like I’m improving. I can say that my total focus is less on the grade that it used to be. My rating in society that is based on money, my job, my sex appeal (or lack thereof) means much less than it used to be. I’m more willing to take risks by being honest in relationships than I was in the past. In terms of career and how the world might rate me, I’m definatly not getting straight A’s. I haven’t seen my latest report card from my family, those grades matter to me, but outside that I’m rather content with a B GPA. If I keep working on it, maybe in ten years I’ll even be okay with C’s.

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One thought on “Anything for an A

  • By Grandma Henke - Reply

    I think the transition to understanding what is important in your life comes with experience and age. At least it does for those of us who were raised in the old school. Times have changed, feelings are discussed more, people spend much more time analyzing their feelings. It was a good movement but sometimes I think it was taken too far. Even when we feel we’ve reached our comfort zone with ourselves it’s hard not to keep analyzing and measuring against what or who we are surrounded by. Even when it doesn’t matter.

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