Wednesday, October 21, 2009

When your B- is my A+

Not long ago I got a cryptic email from a friend. She wrote: “My day was a solid B-.”

Well, I try to be a nice person and I don’t like to see another soul in distress, so I immediately replied to her message: “I’m so sorry. What happened to bring down your day?”

And that’s when I realized a basic truth:  How the world looks depends entirely on how you’re looking at it. It’s a matter of perspective.

Turns out, she’d intended to let me know she’d had a pretty darned good day. What I read, however, was that her day had hit the skids. For her a B- is, to quote that other Martha, a good thing. It’s above average. For me, a B- means you got some ‘splainin’ to do.

Why the big difference? It got me wondering.

Back in my world, a B- meant you’d slid by. You hadn’t really broken a sweat to get the job done and whoever issued the grade was on to you. That teacher looked at your work, sighed, took one of those big red grease pencils and slathered an ugly B- minus across the top, then handed it back to you with one eyebrow raised. You slunk home hoping nobody asked you how it went.

Apparently, my friend went to better schools than I did.

The kind of haphazard work that got me a B- would have landed her a D, tops. She had to work to get a B- and was proud when she landed it. In my school, you could nail a C just for showing up on time.

The folks in my school probably meant well. I’m sure they must have. But when the high school offers only one foreign language, and that one only periodically when they can find a teacher willing to take it on . . . when algebra is an elective, not to mention plane geometry (which was a one semester course) . . . when memorizing and regurgitating the last stanza of Thanatopsis is enough to get you an A in English all by itself . . . and when chemistry and physics are offered as electives only to seniors and only for one semester each . . . well, the bar is pretty low. (We won’t discuss their approach to punctuation and the rules governing the use of ellipses, now will we?)

If you go to a school like that you figure out early on that you’d better deliver some A’s. With so little to be had, you have to grab all you can.

In retrospect, going to that school has served me surprisingly well. By the time I graduated it had lost its state accreditation -- it took an intervention by our Congressman to get any of us into the state university. But I came out all right.

For one thing, I learned that “ok” is not good enough. And I learned that you can’t live your life to someone else’s standards. You have to set your own – not because other people’s standards are too high, but because they might not be high enough.

What little college prep I got came from the high school English teacher.

This is not one of those hymns to the English teacher who opened my eyes to Shakespeare and poetry and the joy of well-punctuated prose. Those teachers came later in my life. This is the woman whose most valuable gift to me may have been assuring me that I was both stupid and lazy.

She knew, you see, that I wasn’t prepared to enter the hallowed halls of learning our Congressman had opened for me. None of us were. And she made sure we knew that. In addition to being stupid, she assured us, we were lazy. She went on to allow as how that combination was a guarantee we’d all be home on academic probation by Christmas.

She ticked us off. Big time. I suspect it was her ulterior motive all along (although she really did believe what she was saying – that we were both dumb and slothful). She made us mad. And we were a stubborn lot, full of Scotch-Irish indignation. When we got mad, we got even. We succeeded in spite of her.

That small class produced a couple of outstanding engineers, several acclaimed civic leaders, more than a handful of very successful business entrepreneurs, at least one doctor, and some respected public servants. And I still have my Phi Beta Kappa key tucked away in my jewelry box. We sure showed her, huh?

(To be fair, I want to pause here and give credit where credit is due – to those teachers who knew what they were up against, both in a poor excuse for a school system and a lazy bum of a student like me who had a brain, but was frequently loath to use it. They deserve medals. The power of their sardonically raised eyebrows is what kept me on the straight and narrow. Not just in school, either. My first editor was especially skillful with her right eyebrow. When she applied it to my copy she didn’t even need her blue pencil. The look alone produced an instant rewrite.)

I’d left that town with my degree tucked under my arm and gone through several successful professional experiences, not to mention the rigors of parenthood, before I understood just how much those grades didn’t count. The ones in college were a little bit harder to get, of course, but there was still a formula to it. Figure out what they want, give it to them, and get the A. The grades were the easy part – the hard part was, and still is, gaining real knowledge.

To explore an idea, to grasp a concept, to understand a principle – to make those things a part of who you are and how you think – that’s the important stuff. And most important by far is to question what you’re being taught – not to take it all at face value just because someone else insists it’s true. You can rack up a whole semester full of A’s without getting there. I know you can. I’ve done it.

So I keep trying. Even though Shakespeare’s King Lear makes me weep for the sheer beauty of it, I still haven’t read James Joyce’s Ulysses enough times to make sense out of it. And even though I’m pretty proficient with Excel pivot tables, say “algebra” to me and my pulse starts to race.

It’s all just a matter of perspective.

So here’s to a new day – hope it is a solid B- for you.