Education / Work

That Ever-Elusive A


An acquaintance of mine — a sharp, sweet, conscientious lady — recently posted her dismay at the grade she’d received in one of her college classes. An 89.45, to be precise. It’s understandable. It’s a tease of a percentile, ridiculously close to THAT possibility, the very possibility of the much-coveted A.

While this was going on, a summer term student of mine was going through a grade crisis and felt the need to vent his frustration to me through several emails. He’d emailed me a terse message early on in the term, insisting he was “going to work hard for an A,” asking me what he needed to do to achieve it. I’d simply recommended that he follow all instructions…and then go above and beyond THAT. He received a B in the class, and over the past couple of days, he’s emailed me his frustration with the course…then later, his frustration with himself. All I could do was respond with a, “You needn’t fret. You did well!” Even still, my answer didn’t make him feel any better.

Here’s the thing…I find it rather difficult to explain or express the sorts of decisions that go into account for any grade when the material seems so subjective. Well, except for an F.  An F generally needs no explanation as the work is either

1) non-existent (automatic zero)

2) horrendously bad by any rational human being’s standard — a kind of What The Fuck Did I Just Read sort of bad (not exactly a zero, but perhaps close enough — Some of my colleagues DO assign zeroes for word vomit on the page, and I am in no position to argue with them at all.)

3) not what was assigned to begin with (possibly an automatic zero…Sometimes, I find this one difficult because I am a writing teacher, and what if it’s a genuinely solid piece of writing? Sometimes, a C or a D may be appropriate.)

4) blatantly plagiarized (automatic zero, etc.)


5) any combination of 2-4. (more than likely a zero)

Grades B through D are trickier as they’re often in the grey, and it’s all dependent on what the content itself and learning objectives entail, really. If a student gets a B in any of my classes though, that’s quite good work, and lately, I’m having a heck of a time trying to convince the “B’s” (like Mr. Email All The Frustration) of that. I mean, a student receives a B, and I might as well have ripped his heart from his chest.

And these days…this is where the A problem kicks in.

I don’t know what to blame exactly for this particular problem — the notion that just because a student’s worked “very very VERY hard” during the term, she/he “deserves” an A .  Are we in a cultural period of entitlement? Is it helicopter tiger mom (and dad) parenting? Is it the whole Everybody Gets a Trophy Because We Don’t Want Kids’ Self -Esteem to Suffer?

(Funny, I’d almost forgotten…I actually had a guy one term, a truly horrid writer and and equally horrid human being, take one look at the generous D I’d put on his mangled analysis of Brent Staples’ phenomenal “Just Walk on By,” stand up in the back of the class, and shout directly at me, “Miss, this is so UNFAIR! You are damaging my self-esteem!” To which I promptly replied, “Then I suggest you take it up with your advisor. After all, your self-esteem will obviously not be able to handle your course of study during your college career.”)

Seriously though, I don’t know what makes an A-paper, or A-writing in general. I can never quite explain it to my students. I was never an A-student in my college English classes (with the exception of a couple later on down the line), and I tell them this. I was in the B-range, always just within reach from that ever-elusive, shiny, golden A, but I never was quite THERE. Because I liked writing so much, it killed my soul a little. The fact that I’d not received A’s in freshman composition doesn’t make the current “B’s” feel any better though.  I tell them, the A — that ever-elusive A — is possible. It occurs more than once every term, I say to them, but its authorship is so good, it makes me weep inside — out of happiness and pride, out of sheer envy. That A-work. It’s so good that I feel foolish that I’m a part of the system forcing that particular student — that A-writer — to continue with me, me, of all people. Those students, the A’s, are world’s better than I am with their words, their diction, their form, their content. They go above and beyond, and even more, they keep going.

So, this I say to Mr. Email All The Frustration and to my acquaintance on Facebook who’d suffered the “unfairness” of an 89.45, you’re on the RIGHT track. No one, and I mean NO ONE other than you, is going to care about your grades as long as that degree diploma’s in hand. You…YOU…are just fine.

And you are certainly off to a great start.



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