Here are the words I spoke to my parents upon receiving the only “F” of my university career: “I think one ‘F’ on a transcript shows character.”
A Story about A Very Bad Grade
I started college by majoring in psychology, but I was not one term in before I switched my major to English. The professors and students in the literature program drew me in, and every class was a confirmation that I had found my people.
I started out at a small university and I would eat lunch on Sunday afternoons at my favorite English professor’s home.
I loved everything about being in college, and it was in the lecture halls and library of this small haven that I discovered something I had completely missed in high school.
I actually liked learning.
I loved how in college, the professors treated you like an adult and classes were full of discussions and the exchange of ideas rather than calling attendance and tests over quickly memorized (and then quickly forgotten) facts and dates.
Since my memory works only slightly better than that of Dory in Finding Nemo, I had a great appreciation for a final exam in essay form rather than multiple choice. For the most part, my grades in college reflected my attitude towards learning. I still struggled through the required core math and science classes, but I managed to eek out average grades in those as well.
For practical reasons, I switched to a larger university after my term abroad, and though none of my professors invited students to lunch, I enjoyed a greater selection of courses and a much larger library, into which I almost completely disappeared during my junior year. I was still loving my literature classes and even found my obligatory grammar sections to be strangely satisfying.
But one term I landed a class with a smug professor that took me back to being fifteen years old in about ten minutes. The professor opened the first class of the semester with a speech informing us that we were all sure to fail his class, that there was no way we would be up for the reading and writing load of this course.
The class was 18th Century British Novel and I was expecting to enjoy it. Though I was duly intimidated by his opening speech, I thought that his words were probably just a stronger than necessary warning for the frat boys in my class.
I was mistaken.
In the next several months, this professor worked hard to make sure his prediction of our failure came true. His favorite form of torture was a pop quiz over the reading material. He said he gave the quizzes to see if we were keeping up with the reading, but it did not matter how much time one spent pouring over Tristram Shandy, rarely could you answer his questions. In retrospect, it probably was not even that hard for our professor to find obscure details in 800 page novels to use as impossible quiz questions. Due to my countless hours in the library, I was not ever behind on the reading, but I still failed every quiz.
After a few weeks I formed a study group with four other students in the class and we would try to get inside the professor’s head as we asked each other questions about the reading material.
Our grades improved a little, and near the end of the term I had managed to drag my grade up to a B, making up for failing the detailed pop quizzes on the essay tests and papers.
But my attitude towards the teacher got worse with every class. He scribbled ugly remarks all over my papers and I could not get over how he seemed to enjoy giving bad grades more than teaching the material.
It’s baffling to me how people are capable of turning a small amount of authority into a crazy power trip. This year I had the unfortunate opportunity to watch a man who gives driving tests at the Arkansas State Police Department who was exacting some kind of vengeance with the world onto nervous teenagers. I imagine it to be such a miserable existence, trying to make everyone else pay for your disappointment with life.
My English professor was on just this kind of power trip, and even more than I wanted to prove him wrong and make a good grade, I wanted to be done with his class. He was making me hate my new found love for learning and even my own major, and I was frustrated with myself for letting him have that much control over me.
I wanted to be released from his presence.
My dad was planning an early December family trip to Colorado to take advantage of the early snowfall at pre-season ski rates. A favorite resort was offering a “Ski Free” week in order to motivate folks to come out early.
It worked. Because he was motivated. And so was I.
I just had one little problem. I had seven exams the week they were going.
I talked to all my professors and arranged to take my exams early so I could go. They all agreed, except for one.
Dr. 18th Century British Novel.
I went home and did some calculations. Then I went back to him and told him that if he would give me a zero on the final, I would still earn a C in the class. I asked him if he would be willing to give me a zero?
Oh no. He reserved the right to flunk me in the class if I did not show up for the final exam, and of course, he would be exercising that right. He felt certain that I did not want to throw away my whole semester’s work just to go skiing.
I left his office without telling him what I would do, but of course, I went skiing.
I think I halfway hoped he wouldn’t flunk me, but inside, I knew he would. And he did. After Christmas, I received my grades in the mail and there was the “F,” a super ugly glare on the page.
Now I had a decision. I still needed a course to fulfill that credit. I could take the same class again, which would replace my “F” with a new grade. Or I could keep my “F” and take a different course.
I could not bear to sit another semester with Dr. Smug and have him lording it over me that I was having to repeat his class. A whole term of wasted class time stung more to my heart than the “F.”
I took 19th Century British Novel with a different professor to fulfill the credit, which turned out to be one of favorite classes of my university career.
It may simply be an elaborate game of mind gymnastics mind that helped me finally decide that I ended with the upper hand over Dr. 18th Century British Novel, but whatever the case, I felt that I had won by choosing not to retake his class.
Even though I left university with the black “F” on my transcript, I did not lose my love for learning or even for British novels.
I discovered Fanny Burney in 18th Century British Novel and went on to read and love the rest of her works. To this day Evelina is one of my favorite novels of all time, regardless of all the quizzes I failed while reading it.
I got a whole extra class full of learning as a result of being flunked that December.
Plus I had a great week in the mountains.
I can still feel the wind in my face skiing down a favorite run with my brother, and my triumph at imagining the professor’s surprise at my empty seat on exam day.