I got one D in my 16 years of being a graded student. It was a D+ in Western Civilization my sophomore year in high school, a class taught by the late, and oh so dear, Mr. Arnold. I wish I still had the test. At the bottom, in fat red ink, it read “D+ (gift!).” Gift, meaning he’d probably have failed me if he hadn’t also been my ice hockey coach (i.e., he liked me.) I didn’t agree I deserved a D+ and went in to defend my work. He changed my grade to a B-, not because he was being nice but because he realized he had graded my responses unfairly. Ahem. But I will never forget the experience, the horrifying feeling I had when I got that test back with a grade I thought would sink any hope of a future career (I was 15 at the time.) It’s these little blips of experience that shape us, I think. The ones that shake us enough to be memorable. During that probably 24-hour period, I learned what it felt like to fail (almost), what it felt like to stand up for myself, and that teachers make mistakes too.
I recalled all of this on Monday when Peter and I got a text from Frank after school letting us know he’d gotten a 69 on his ELA exam. (He rounded up, I later discovered. He actually got a 68.75. Showing off those stellar math skills, buddy!)
Frank has gotten straight A+s since the start of the year. On everything. To have jumped two letters of the alphabet on one test is almost impressive. I’m glad he let us know on text so my jaw could drop outside of his presence, and I could think through the sane way to approach the issue. In the half hour it took him to get home, I decided this was actually a very good thing. An 80 and we might have collectively blown it off with a “we’ll expect more of you next time.” But a 69 (68.75) shook everyone enough to take action, Frank included. I imagine he’ll remember it as vividly as I do my “gifted” D+.
Just as I visited Mr. Arnold during office hours, I urged Frank to visit Ms. Almquist to discuss what questions he got wrong, why, whether he could redo any of them to change his grade, and most importantly, to show her that he cared. All of which he did yesterday. They reviewed the questions he’d gotten wrong and she taught him some strategies on how best to approach the answers. He re-did four of them, and got them all correct. His grade won’t change but he discovered it was more of a prep exam anyway, and that this grade wouldn’t figure into his overall class grade. Had he gotten an 80 and not gone in for office hours, he wouldn’t have had an opportunity to make a positive impression on his teacher, would have been silently concerned about how much the test would pull down his overall grade, and wouldn’t have received any of the additional instruction and therefore would be surely be winging it again next time. An 80 would probably have remained an 80. But a 69 (68.75) may just turn into gold.
So this experience will perhaps prevent future Frank from getting another D+ in school. But surely there will be other areas in his life where he gets the equivalent – on an athletic field, in a relationship, in a conference room, etc. – just like all humans. When he does, my hope is that he’ll remember this experience and recognize that things only end when you allow them to.
Coincidentally, I just received my weekly email this morning from James Clear, an American author to whom one of my good friends from college turned me on just a few weeks ago. He writes about “the art and science of how to live better.” Every Thursday, he sends three ideas, two quotes and one question. The third idea this week was this:
So you can fail every once in a while. Make mistakes like everyone does. But if you seek to correct the misstep, I’ll go one step further than James Clear – the pain of incorrect action may turn into the pride of correction. No matter our age or the context, let us not overlook the opportunity to make an A from a D.