(From Marvin's Book, The Story of a Professor and a Promise, 2011)
Grades are not a surprise in college these days, at least not in some classes. Almost every college provides some Internet platform where instructors can place resources, give quizzes, create discussion boards, take polls and post grades.
I have a rule for myself to hand exams back in the class period immediately after the exam; students who miss class that day (Why? Why miss class??) must come to my office to get their exams. Some never show up—but I know they can see their score online. From the beginning of the semester, every quiz and exam is weighted and my students know their exact running-weighted-total grade throughout the semester.
Some students check their grades as regularly as they monitor their bank accounts. Other students, well, they avoid checking their grades like other people avoid the scale (or monitoring their bank accounts).
Beth, whose humor never shone through on her history exams, avoided the assignment of giving herself an actual grade, and instead wrote:
I can’t say that I’m proud of the work I’ve done. I believe I have made a reasonable attempt considering the family struggles I have encountered during this very short summer session. On top of everything my step dad has been in the hospital for the last week with a serious condition. It guess its just my luck…. Sometimes life is like a bag of dog pooh lit on fire on your doorstep.
Cynthia, a perfect-attendance, front-row, always attentive A student wrote a harsh evaluation of herself, giving herself a B while pointing out her notes were doodle-free:
If it wasn’t for one slip up I made on exam three, I now for a fact I would have received an “A” this semester, but since that is not the case, I will give myself a “B”. During the exams, it was easy for me to reflect back and think about the lectures and stories.
I realized how intently I listened in this class while sitting in another one of my classes. I noticed that none of my history lectures had doodling anywhere. I was always so worried that I would miss 5 years of history if I wasn’t constantly looking for important information.
Noah, a skilled writer who turned in meticulous work, expected the best:
My work was original and well written, not thrown together in a last minute fashion. I feel I deserve an A. If there is a higher grade than an A I will be more than willing to accept that also. But since you’re only offering an A as the highest grade I will be more than grateful to accept that.
Amy, a quiet student with perfect grades and perfect hair, wrote:
I earned A’s on all my exams and I did not miss a single class. I can now watch MSNBC and know what they’re talking about and follow their discussions. Through this class I have gained self-confidence and a sense of knowing what is going on in the world around me. I now know why America is the way it is and we are so big and bad. I was interested in coming to class and learning about the world today.
Isha, a quiet test-avoidant student followed the assignment, wrote an enthusiastic but contradictory evaluation:
I know we have not communicated a lot this pass semester, but I do realize you are a very down to earth teacher, I think I deserve in this class is a “C.” I notice that I failed two of your test, but I tried very hard. The reason I think I deserve a “C” in this AMH course is because of my effort. By this being my freshman year, I don’t think I stick with my goals 100, but at least 65% of it. Earning a “C” for me is like earning a “A”. I am pushing for a “B” that will be hard to come across. So I am shutting for the best “C”. (shutting?)
Lisa’s grades on the other hand, went up during the semester. Because her first exam grade was her lowest grade and because each of her next three exam grades were A’s, I was inclined to overlook her first grade. Apparently she was having a harder time getting over it:
When I assigning myself a grade, I immediately skipped over A because of the disappointment I felt after receiving my first test. Not the grade part, but the actual test. I’m sure you did not notice, but I actually started tearing up.
I didn’t fully understand the way to study for your exam. So I am giving myself an overall B because I felt like I did try very hard to listen in class and I did grasp most of the material.
Carrie, on the other hand, had a lot more academic confidence:
I had my mind set for nothing but success. I was always prepared, on time for the most part, and only missed out on class one time. Every day that I was in class I didn’t even look up very much. My main priority was to listen and copy down every word that came out of your mouth, even the bad ones.
The first exam was really frightening to me. I had no idea what I was getting myself into considering I was new at all this history stuff. In the end I pulled myself through with a good grade of 87%. I was really happy because a lot of people around me were complaining about their not so good grades. That made me feels really good.
Thomas, a happy and intellectually curious student who loved to recommend books for me, also wrote about how hard he worked and how proud he was of himself:
This class has truly been a wonderful ride, but to tell you the truth I thought this class was really going to be hard. I mean on the first day of class you’re like I never teach this class the same way. Then you were like you must think to pass my tests and must understand the story. I was like are you kidding me this is not what college is supposed to be about, we are supposed to remember things not have to connect it. Over the course of the semester I began to work very hard in this class. I would take hours studying for the test trying to piece together everything you said. I didn’t know if I would do well on the first test but I tried anyway. It turns out that I was only one point away from an A. I felt so proud. I mean that was a grade I had worked my ass off to get.
And then there is Arden, whose self-evaluation almost effortlessly deflects responsibility and tosses guilt at the reader (me):
If I had a chance to grade myself I would probably give myself a “C” in this course. I wouldn’t give myself an A or B because I didn’t work hard enough to get an A or B, so taking a C is what I would chose. I probably made an F in the course, but hopefully not. No one wants to be a failure in life, especially me being the first and only child to go to college. Taking an F would hurt me emotionally and academically.
Andrea, on the other hand, was able to structure her semester for success, making sure that work didn’t interfere with her education:
At the beginning of the semester I made a promise to you and to myself to try my best in all my classes and I feel that I kept that promise. Studying has become a constant on my to-do list and even though I didn’t always receive the grade I wanted I never gave up and continued to try my best. I deserve an A in this class. I have only missed one day of class. My work was always on time no matter what sacrifices had to be made to accomplish my goals. I made changes at work to make sure that work never interfered with my school work. School came first and my employer understood this.
Carl, another A student, got paid while studying for my class by teaching history to his co-workers:
I can tell you that at least half the guys I work with (there are only guys where I work, actually) know something to do with this course because when it was slow I used to read the book aloud to everyone. The boss told me to be more productive so I taught everyone history….
Cherry, on the other hand, earned an A for honestly identifying her own downward slide, out of my class and onto the Maury Show:
My overall performance in American History this semester has been a little discouraging. In the beginning I was always coming to class and getting all my notes and I felt as though I had a good chance at succeeding in this course. Later on in the semester I found myself as always slacking off a bit and not coming to class as regularly as I should have been.
Even though I may have missed class a few days for various reasons such as going to New York for the Maury Show, being out sick with the stomach virus and later catching a miserable cold, or even having transportation problems and having to catch the forever late city bus I still could have found it within myself to work a little harder on getting the notes I may have missed.
And then there is James who admitted he wasn’t prepared for my course:
Personally I don’t think I was well-prepared for the content of this class. I’m used to teacher giving assignments out of the book, or writing important notes on the board. Most classes you can past a test of memorization, but in this course that’s not going to do you any good because connecting, and writing the impact, is the primary source on a test in this course.
Brenton described himself as “not the sharpest knife in the kitchen,” then admitted:
In order to be a super student an individual would have to attend class every day and do pretty well on all assignments and tests… I on the other hand truly believe that I deserve a C. Looking at my grades from throughout the semester, I did pretty average”.
Gail, a returning student, wrote:
When I initially entered this class, there was a huge gap of history I was missing. Most students in my class either came straight from high school or had taken other history classes in college. Reality was I had not been in a history class for almost 15 years. But with persistency, I began to focus and make sense of something that seemed foreign to me. That is why I give myself a B: Solid Work.
Shannon openly admitted to studying for my class less than three nights during the entire semester, and noted her non-disruptive presence should be accounted for:
I think that overall, I deserve a C in this class. Other than a couple of poor exam grades, I feel that I’ve made it up with one exceptional exam grade, as well as solid attendance history. I blame my bad exam grades on my bad study habits.
I think I’ve only studied a total of three nights throughout the entire semester. Each night was the night before the exam. Come to think of it, I didn’t even study for the first exam, so that makes it two nights total.
And even though I may have popped in a little late at times due to parking situations, hangovers, and/or a fractured fibula, I don’t feel I disturbed too many focused note takers in the process.
Penny described her own mid-semester demise, caused by her poor attitude about doing poorly on the first exam:
At the start of the semester I was on top of everything. In my opinion I was the “perfect student.” Was I wrong definitely. The proof found itself to be in my first test of the semester. In which I studied my butt off, only for it to result in a bad grade. This not only deferred me from my sought after title, but also brought procrastination into the recipe for this title. I went into the middle of the semester with my head half down. All good things must come to an end. So did this semester, with my self grade dwindling from an “A” to a “C”.
Cade also thought he deserved a C:
Although my tests have not shown that I make the connections, I know the information. Like a lot of people I am not a great test taker. I cannot blame anyone for the grades I have received over the semester, but, I have had to take a different job than what I was and have had to work full time and go to school full time also. So all of this is why I think my grade should be a high C.
Erica pointed out she’d intended to put more effort into the class, ending her evaluation with a vague comment about how, had she been “more available,” she would have done better.
Overall I believe I was a C student. My notes were superb. Writing them however was useless if I was not going to correlate the information with my study guide. This hurt my test scores tremendously. My presence should have been better. My effort was intended to be more acceptable. The class alone was an A, and if I would have been more available I would have been an A student.
Felicia doesn’t seem to want to talk about her actual grades in the course, but admitted to cheating on me with another class:
I would love to have an A in this class, but that is impossible. I am working full time, I am also a single mother having to attend to a baby after work and school. I also have this class I am attending with lots of reading and studying I have to do.
Naren was the only student in any class who said he deserved a D:
I start to study three days in advance before the test. When you go over the stuff in class, it all makes sense, but when test time comes, I draw a blank and remember the big stuff and not the little things that connect all the images or phrases. I guess I need to learn on my note taking skills because I was never exposed to your style of teaching.
My exam average up to the third exam is a 64, which in my case is a disappointment, but I have always been a bad test taker. I just wish I could have another semester to prove to you that I can make better grades than you have been seeing. Being a freshman, I am still used to having a whole year with the same teacher like in high school, and bring up my test grades slowly as the year goes on.
My auditorium class, the one with the two empty chairs, meets for the last time on the day of the final exam.
When everyone settles in, but before the exam starts, I beg their permission to ask two questions.
“At the beginning of the semester, one of you had been in a motorcycle accident. You came to see me, and you read Marvin’s letter with me before I brought it to the president. Anyone here, was it you?”
Silence. Every part of me feels heavy now, like I am in a rollercoaster climbing up up up and I can’t get off.
“Thank you.” My voice is quieter now, but the room is so still they can hear me.
“My second question has to do with a recent class. About ten minutes into the lecture, a student looked really upset, closed his books and walked out of class. Remember?”
“Was it one of you who walked out? I won’t be mad, I just need to know if it was one of you or if that moment was the last time I saw Aaron.”
“So when he left, I was called to go after him. Remember how I said to the air something like, “No, I can’t chase him! We have to keep going…”
“Alright, OK, I was called and I didn’t go.” My voice chokes up. “So that’s my lesson. Because of Marvin, no one is allowed to come in late and make me worry. Now, because of Aaron, I will follow that voice if it ever calls me like that again. If it says help, I’ll help. That’s my lesson this semester.”
The room sat humid with shock.
Someone asks, “Where did he sit?” and a few people nod and whisper to each other. We figure out quickly that none of them had ever spoken to him after class. None of them knew him by name.
Later that day I email Matthew, the recipient of the boxes at Camp Alamo, and ask him to please find and keep Aaron’s letter for me. I wanted that piece of him, just like a lock of hair.
Before Matthew can check for himself, I email him again to say never mind.
After checking all my lists and folders and all the places I keep notes, I realized Aaron hadn’t done the service project.
Out of every student in all my classes, he was the only one who didn’t join in the fun of giving.
I’m OK with it though, because invisible Aaron left me the warmth of his encouragement and the gift of a little time together on this short journey.
The last email I get from the president regarding Marvin’s degree is that he’s asked a vice president to research how other colleges determine who will get honorary degrees.
I thank him, because he didn’t actually say “no.”
I never told him “I’m writing a book that I promised Marvin’s family ten years ago when he died. Please, please, give this book a happy ending” because I wanted him to choose to be a hero in this story on his own.
The president announces he is leaving us for his dream job at another school. His last day is April 30.
May 1, Graduation Day, rolls around. Before the ceremony I meet graceful, quiet Morgan and escort her to where the rest of the graduates are waiting in a tangled, excited, loud, happy mess in the lower level of the Tallahassee Civil Center. Down there we weave through hugs and laughs, and she finds her place among the other students graduating with honors.
I find Josephine and drag her through the throngs of chattering, texting, picture-taking graduates to Morgan.
By then, someone is explaining the processional to the graduates. Josephine drops her purse at her feet so that her hands are free to translate.
I join my colleagues assembling for the procession. Usually we sit next to whomever we choose within our division, and then the divisions march in alphabetically. This time, someone tells our division to go first.
So we do, seriously parading into the Civic Center wearing our Harry Potter-esque robes. As we pass through the rows of standing graduates they wave at us in our costumes.
I end up sitting in the front row, right in front of the stage.
A bubble of hope rises through my stomach into my heart.
Maybe, just maybe, they’ll still say something about Marvin tonight.
Then no, I push that bubble down.
Marvin’s family isn’t at graduation, so no.
This should not be the night he gets his degree.
Another bubble of hope rises up because maybe Marvin’s family is here and no one told me.
That could be possible. I love having a huge imagination.
I settle myself into the ceremony, happily seated between a retired lieutenant colonel/history professor and the dean of arts and sciences.
My colleagues and I sitting in the front row have the best seats in the house.
Josephine, the translator, stands in front of us, and loses herself into the speeches in a ballet of gestures.
The president—now the former president—gives a speech.
A retiring faculty member gives a speech.
No mention of Marvin, of Aaron, of Carol or any others who are not with us tonight.
I look in the graduation program. All of our names are listed, faculty and staff.
By Carol’s name there is “*”.
At the bottom of the page in tiny letters is “*deceased.”
She was a force of nature, larger than life, a powerful woman, a full page ad, an entire book wouldn’t be enough to show the world the gaping hole she’s left.
I understand, though. Carol’s name was listed alphabetically with her division, still knitted among colleagues, welcome to show up and join back in at any time.
Tonight is a night for celebration. It belongs to the graduates.
I check the watch on my right hand, and starting NOW I allow myself sixty seconds to wallow in grief.
Twelve years ago on May 1 in this same place arena I was hooded with my Ph.D. Abuela was there. I miss her. I miss the way our family felt like a fat full circle when she was with us. I’m thankful she was here. I miss my Mom and what she used to feel like when she had a mom, and a daughter and a granddaughter.
It was a great chapter, a chapter closed.
I shift and recross my legs, gazing at my watch. Thirty seconds of wallowing left.
Waves of anger tangle with sandy sadness over Aaron for never coming to my office again. For not finishing what he started.
I’m angry with myself for not noticing his grades slip, for not realizing he wasn’t engaged. Shame shame shame on me. The signs were there, right there, but my eyes were elsewhere, on David, on Matthew, on Carol, on Marvin. Red herrings?
Five seconds left.
I’m too thankful to grieve any longer, so I give thanks for Abuela, for Marvin, for Carol, for Aaron.
Two seconds left.
All the sadness flies away in a balloon and I’m fully back into this great night where families are cheering their mothers, sisters, daughters, sons, friends, fathers and grandfathers across the stage.
Earlier that day I did my duty by posting a Facebook warning to graduates, “Wear cute shoes! We can see all your shoes as you cross the stage, so consider yourself warned.”
My colleague sitting next to me is my Facebook friend and points out some cute shoes when they go by. We shake our heads at dirty tennis shoes and wince at silver stilettos that laced up and around and around an ankle.
Morgan, Jackie, Darlene, Christian, Jennifer, Emerald, Spring, Jonathan, Andrew, Brittany and hundreds more graduate from college tonight, right here and now.
They made it. They did it.
We all cheer for them.
It’s their night.