Saturday, May 9, 2015

Why Bad Grades are Good


Everybody needs a moment like this.

I got two "bad" grades in high school. Both were well deserved. Only one of them changed my life. 

The one that didn't change my life was Driver's Ed. We did reams of tedious worksheets copying sentences out of the Utah Driver Handbook and then graded them in class to fill the time.

Teacher: "Question number 11 says, 'Where should you not park?' "

(My answer: Places where it's illegal or not safe--see Driver's Handbook for examples. Also, on top of other cars.)

Teacher: "The book lists 15 places you should not park. A correct answer has to have at least 5 of the following: areas marked "no parking", a red zone, soft shoulders, in areas marked for handicapped parking without a handicap sticker, a construction zone, double parking, on a crosswalk, within 15 ft of an intersection, in front of  a fire hydrant, blocking a driveway,...."

Person grading my paper: "What if they wrote--"

Teacher: "Whose paper are you grading?"

Person grading my paper: "...Dan's."

Teacher: "Mark it wrong. 

The other B+ was in Mr. McConkie's 10th grade English class. In that class, my life was changed by a few small, handwritten red letters on the cover sheet of a collection of poetry I submitted. That scarlet letter B and the four words that followed would sink to the bottom of my soul and seethe for years.


According to the rubric, I should have got an "A". True, I had sabotaged perfectly good poems with shenanigans like inserting "Warp Speed, Sulu" into otherwise well-written poetry--it did rhyme. Despite my perfect plan of "uncivil obedience" (the opposite of civil disobedience), somehow I got a lower grade--and not even an A-. It was a  B-

The worst part was, I didn't even know you could get minuses on things other than A's.

In the words of my sister's infamous report card  tantrum, "B stands for bad."

I mean, there were kids in that class who couldn't spell, write a complete punctuated sentence or even articulate a justifiable reason for their continued existence. And they all got A's!

It was unconscionable! It was unfair! It was...sabotage!

I began to think it was a conspiracy when it kept happening. In all of high school I never got a single good grade in English. 

Four years later, to my surprise Mr. Larsen, another BEHS teacher, confessed that, in fact, it was deliberate. No English teacher at Box Elder High School was ever going to give me an 'A'. Mr. Larsen even told me the reason why.

I forgot what he said. 

But two decades years later, with those scarlet letters still festering in my ego, I'm finally beginning to understand.

To know why, I have to tell you about a runner named Mitch.

Freshman year we ran 3 miles every other day in a class called "Fitness for Life". I called it "Run for Your Life". 

This kid, who wasn't on any of the sports teams, cruised to victory every time. He left all the athletes in the class in the dust, without even seemingly trying. The first week of class two coaches sat and watched dumbfounded as Mitch ran their cross country runners into the ground. The next week the track coach was there. It got to be a spectacle with coaches lining up on steps outside the locker room on their breaks to watch this kid run like track star without even breaking a sweat. It would be like watching a kid pick up a basketball for the first time and start draining 3 pointers like nothing.

But Mitch wasn't interested in their solicitations to join any sports teams. 

Eventually they conned him into running a cross country race by saying he didn't have to be on the team. He could just run. But they had already signed him up. He ran the race and he was hooked. Mitch went on to become one of the most successful collegiate athletes to ever graduate from our little town in Northern Utah.

Mitch had talent. And when he was ready to put what he had on the line, the coaches were able to put him on a fast track to success.

Maybe it isn't so crazy to expect a kid with enough creativity to keep an entire class guessing at what his next antic will be to be able to come up with an interesting story to write. 

To really write, to put my brain to good use required something I didn't have. What I lacked was emotional maturity. I was (am) a late bloomer. But despite that obvious deficiency, Mr. McConkie did not do me the ultimate disservice of grading me like the others. Perhaps he saw something nascent, neglected and unused. He had the courage to stand in my path to mediocrity, then circle it in red and brand it on my soul.

In the ten years since I said goodbye and good riddance to Mr. McConkie's class, I wrote only a few scraps of poetry. But when the ego-searing comment finally came to the surface, I started trying. In the next twelve years, I wrote over a million words of fiction, over a half dozen finished novels. 

This spring, I just signed a book contract with a publisher for a young adult fantasy book series. 

I thank heaven for teachers like Mr. McConkie, who care enough to stick it to a kid who isn't doing his best.

I was never valedictorian. And I'll never regret it. I believe there is power in failure. 

I was moderately successful in sports in high school. But it was the kid who took second to me at every meet and bombed his last dive at state, missing a medal by a few points, that went on to join the swimming and diving team at University of Michigan and eventually compete at the US national diving championships. Meanwhile, my college office mate looked at one of my swim championship t-shirts and said. "That shirt is so faded. Your glory days are over, man!"

To those who feel like they missed their moment to shine, remember the fireworks that go off on the ground are not the ones that make people cheer. 

If something kept you from shining when others did, let that fire burn. Keep rising. Whether or not you get the break, you did more than a kid who made a joke out of his assignment: You did your best work. 

In the end, we are the product of what we give, not what we receive. Rising to our potential takes courage. And more often than not, it starts with failure--deserved or otherwise.

1 comment:

  1. Hello my good friend Dan. I have been enjoying reading your tidbits of knowledge on your blog. I found this video and thought you might enjoy watching how we learn something then when faced with something we know but need has a slight variation we struggle. Enjoy.