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The Death of Zane Grey

 

My English professor was wrong.  Simply wrong.  I believed so in my heart, but as an 18-year old college freshman, I was too young to challenge his casual dismissal of what I wrote.  As an honors English student, that first college essay was my attempt to show the world, or at least myself, that I could read and think, that I was intelligent.  We had read one of Plato's dialogues, and I tried hard to understand what he had written, reading it three or four times.  In so doing, I thought that I had found something, a certain insight, and even more, had captured it in my own words, an insight the professor seemed to mock rather off-handedly.  What had I said?

Years ago, I might have hesitated to reveal those thoughts for fear that the "C-" that I got was the truth--that my thoughts, my brain, were worth only a C-.  Over the intervening decades, I've learned not to worry.  As best I can recollect, I said that we can't truly and deeply know beauty, joy, serenity, contentment, any of the forms of "the good", without also knowing, or having to learn, ugliness, despair, discord, malaise, or any of the forms of "the bad".  One begets the other.  Each is known through the other. To try to live without "the bad", to exclude it from our lives, is at least to be ignorant, if not also inhuman.

Trite?  Cliche?  Too obvious to mention?  Perhaps.  Yet I thought I had stumbled on a paradox of sorts.  If I was right, then aren't we foolish to try to avoid all the manifestations of "the bad?"  I don't mean in any daily, localized sense, as my teacher apparently meant when he commented sarcastically in the margin, "So why don't we walk around with stones in our shoes all day so we can know how good it feels to take them out?"  Of course, trying to avoid pain in daily life is quite understandable.  Why court suffering?  When it does come, however, why try to run away?  Why not try to accept the pain, admit it into our lives, honor it, give it place alongside our pleasure, our happiness?  What good do denial and flight accomplish after evil has been done?  I think I was trying to say that "the bad" also has, in a deep sense, a certain worth.

Of course, "you have to take the good with the bad" is hardly news.  My parents had told me that frequently enough while I was growing up.  It is a cliche, isn't it?  Yet I didn't see it that way then.  I believed, or wanted or needed to believe, that I had understood something of more than passing note.  More than that, I came to that view after an honest and, for me, strenuous effort to understand Plato and my own thoughts.  I knew that I had put as much brain power as I could muster into that essay, my first essay for advanced English.  "Please, professor, tell me what you think. Have I found something worthwhile, however rough and unpolished?   Teach me how to cut and polish it, and tell me that I can think, that if I continue in this way, that I will one day be truly well-educated."   Those were the words in my heart.

I got a C-.  Yes, he pointed out, as I recall, some logical fallacies, or something of the sort, in my thinking.  Yes, he asked some tough questions in the margins that made me doubt the reality of my supposed paradox.  Fine.  Maybe it was a C- paper.  Maybe I'd agree with him were I to read it today, but what about the honesty and effort I put into that essay?  What about the pride I felt in myself for simply being in freshman honors English?  What happened to that?  Who recognized that?  Who saw how important that essay was to me beyond the correctness, philosophically or rhetorically, of what I had written?  What grade did my earnestness get?  C-?  I have a C- brain?  I'm a C- student?

Okay, so I'm making much of a little adolescent anguish.  It happens all the time.  Youth is callow. That's what growing up is for.  I got over it.  Yet I remember not wanting to try so hard the rest of that semester in that class.  I remember the shock and disappointment I felt when I got my paper back, not so much over his disputing my "truth" but for his neglecting my effort.  Should I have gotten an "A" for effort?  Of course not, but what would some enthusiasm from him have cost, and what would it have done for me? 

"Really enjoyed your essay, Mark. I'm always pleased to see my students engage their reading fully. I can see you put a lot of thought into this. And the paradox you believe you have found, though it has some weakness, interests me for the implication which it raises. If what you say is true, then do you think ..."

See what I mean? Even if the C- had stayed, I could have accepted it if it had been for the rhetoric, the organization, and not the thoughts, not the effort, not my mind.

Ancient history?  Not worth troubling myself over now?  I didn't keep the essay, so I can't re-evaluate it.  Perhaps it was poorly thought through and written (though I don't think so), or perhaps it didn't compare well with the other essays in that honors class.  After all, all the other students were offically bright, most having been near the top of their class in high school.  No effect on me now?  I can't say.  I can say, however, that such an experience hasn't protected me, or my students, from similar experiences. 

A year ago I sat in my office with an undergraduate biology student from Russia, going over his first essay for my Composition for Foreign Students class.  He had apparently put as much sincerity into his writing as I had in that essay of mine long ago, judging by his painful efforts to explain and justify his work to my critical eye. And I suppose he had uncovered an important truth for himself through the essay, however much I disagreed with that truth (viz., "that ordinary, unarmed Russian people, in resisting the attempted coup of August, 1992, had overcome the timidity engendered by the last seventy years of authoritarian politics and, in so doing, had kept the ongoing Russian experiment in representative government alive"). Yes, he had typing and grammatical errors aplenty. English is his third language, and he had never written an essay in English before.

More than that, though, his essay's topic meant a great deal to him.  He said that he had lived through the attempted coup.  He had, in fact, been out in the streets of Moscow with his father and other ordinary Russians, unarmed and unorganized, as they faced down the tanks. That is what excited him, what meant so much to him.  And he wanted to tell me that.  

I gave him a C-.  Yes, I had good reasons-- not sharply focused thesis, confusing opening paragraph, lots of typing and grammatical errors, no evidence of proofreading.  Did he deserve the C-?  Was I too generous?  Was it worse than a C-?  Perhaps.  Yet the C- clearly upset his feelings as a person trying honestly to express something important to him.  Like me, he couldn't understand why I didn't see what was so clear to him, the importance of what he had witnessed.  I learned that as we talked in my office that afternoon, him defending his ideas and me patiently listening.  I think the lesson was how much emotion (call it ego, if you will) can be involved in writing, though I'm not sure whose lesson it was, nor who taught whom.  What else was learned in my office on that cold, damp, gray February afternoon?

Teaching and learning are vitally important.  However much we try, though, we still fail.  I feel like I fail too often, yet I struggle daily to teach well, to make them see that they do matter, that they can think, that the world is mysterious, that learning is possible and vital to being alive in this world. I'm in teaching to help, to show, to guide, not to weaken or tear down.

So why did I give him a C-?

 

 

Copyright © Mark McTague 1995