Making the Grade

Making the Grade

From Chicken Soup for the College Soul

Making the Grade

In 1951, I was eighteen and traveling with all the money I had in the world—fifty dollars. I was on a bus heading from Los Angeles to Berkeley. My dream of attending the university was coming true. I’d already paid tuition for the semester and for one month at the co-op residence. After that, I had to furnish the rest—my impoverished parents couldn’t rescue me.

I’d been on my own as a live-in mother’s helper since I was fifteen, leaving high school at noon to care for children till midnight. All through high school and my first year of college, I’d longed to participate in extracurricular activities, but my job made that impossible. Now that I was transferring to Berkeley, I hoped to earn a scholarship.

That first week I found a waitress job, baby-sat and washed dishes at the co-op as part of my rent. At the end of the semester, I had the B average I needed for a scholarship. All I had to do was achieve the B average next term.

It didn’t occur to me to take a snap course; I’d come to the university to learn something. I believed I could excel academically and take tough subjects.

One such course was a survey of world literature. It was taught by Professor Sears Jayne, who roamed the stage of a huge auditorium, wearing a microphone while lecturing to packed rows. There was no text. Instead, we used paperbacks. Budgetwise, this made it easier since I could buy them as needed.

I was fascinated with the concepts he presented. To many students, it was just a degree requirement, but to me it was a feast of exciting ideas. My co-op friends who were also taking the course asked for my help. We formed a study group, which I led.

When I took the first exam—all essay questions—I was sure I’d done well. On the ground floor, amid tables heaped with test booklets, I picked out mine. There in red was my grade, a 77, C-plus. I was shocked. English wasmy best subject! To add insult to injury, I found that my study-mates had received Bs. They thanked me for my coaching.

I confronted the teaching assistant, who referred me to Professor Jayne, who listened to my impassioned arguments but remained unmoved.

I’d never questioned a teacher about a grade before— never had to. It didn’t occur to me to plead my need for a scholarship; I wanted justice, not pity. I was convinced that my answers merited a higher grade.

I resolved to try harder, although I didn’t know what that meant because school had always been easy for me. I’d used persistence in finding jobs or scrubbing floors, but not in pushing myself intellectually. Although I chose challenging courses, I was used to coasting toward As.

I read the paperbacks more carefully, but my efforts yielded another 77. Again, C-plus for me and Bs and As for my pals, who thanked me profusely. Again, I returned to Dr. Jayne and questioned his judgment irreverently. Again, he listened patiently, discussed the material with me, but wouldn’t budge—theC-plus stood. He seemed fascinated by my ardor in discussing the course ideas, but my dreams of a scholarship and extracurricular activities were fading fast.

One more test before the final. One more chance to redeem myself. Yet another hurdle loomed. The last book we studied, T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, was available only in hardback. Too expensive for my budget.

I borrowed it from the library. However, I knew I needed my own book to annotate. I couldn’t afford a big library fine either. In 1951, there were no copying machines, so it seemed logical to haul out my trusty old Royal manual typewriter and start copying all 420 lines. In between waitressing, washing dishes, attending classes, baby-sitting, and tutoring the study group, I managed to pound them out.

I redoubled my efforts for this third exam. For the first time, I learned the meaning of the word “thorough.” I’d never realized how hard other students struggled for what came easily to me.

My efforts did absolutely no good. Everything, down to the dreaded 77, went as before. Back I marched into Dr. Jayne’s office. I dragged out my dog-eared, note-blackened texts, arguing my points as I had done before. When I came to the sheaf of papers that were my typed copy of The Wasteland, he asked, “What’s this?”

“I had no money left to buy it, so I copied it.” I didn’t think this unusual. Improvising was routine for me.

Something changed in Dr. Jayne’s usually jovial face. He was quiet for a long time. Then we returned to our regular lively debate on what these writers truly meant. When I left, I still had my third 77—definitely not a lucky number for me—and the humiliation of being a seminar leader, trailing far behind my ever-grateful students.

The last hurdle was the final. No matter what grade I got, it wouldn’t cancel three C-pluses. I might as well kiss the scholarship good-bye. Besides, what was the use? I could cram till my eyes teared, and the result would be a crushing 77.

I skipped studying. I felt I knew the material as well as I ever would. Hadn’t I reread the books many times and explained them to my buddies? Wasn’t The Wasteland resounding in my brain? The night before the final, I treated myself to a movie.

I sauntered into the auditorium and decided that for once I’d have fun with a test. I marooned all the writers we’d studied on an island and wrote a debate in which they argued their positions. It was silly, befitting my nothing-to-lose mood. The words flowed—all that sparring with Dr. Jayne made it effortless.

A week later, I strolled down to the ground floor (ground zero for me) and unearthed my test from the heaps of exams. There, in red ink on the blue cover, was an A. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

I hurried to Dr. Jayne’s office. He seemed to be expecting me, although I didn’t have an appointment. I launched into righteous indignation. How come I received a C-plus every time I slaved and now, when I’d written a spoof, I earned an A?

“I knew that if I gave you the As you deserved, you wouldn’t continue to work as hard.”

I stared at him, realizing that his analysis and strategy were correct. I had worked my head off, as I had never done before.

He rose and pulled a book from his crowded shelves. “This is for you.”

It was a hardback copy of The Wasteland. On the flyleaf was an inscription to me. For once in my talkative life, I was speechless.

I was speechless again when my course grade arrived: A-plus. I believe it was the only A-plus given.

Next year, when I received my scholarship:

I cowrote, acted, sang and danced in an original musical comedy produced by the Associated Students. It played in the largest auditorium to standing-room-only houses.

I reviewed theater for the Daily Cal, the student campus newspaper.

I wrote a one-act play, among the first to debut at the new campus theater.

I acted in plays produced by the drama department.

The creative spark that had been buried under dishes, diapers and drudgery now flamed into life. I don’t recall much of what I learned in those courses of long ago, but I’ll never forget the fun I had writing and acting.

And I’ve always remembered Dr. Jayne’s lesson. Know that you have untapped powers within you. That you must use them, even if you can get by without trying. That you alone must set your own standard of excellence.

Varda One

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