Too Many Questions

I didn’t begin to take school seriously until the 7th grade. Until then, I studied enough to keep my parents off my back. I could have completed the extra-credit assignment to raise my B+ to an A-, but I’d rather be playing Wiffle Ball with my friends.

By 7th grade I began to compare my grades to those of my friends. It helped that the local newspaper listed the names of those student who made the honor roll each quarter. So I moved the bar a little higher and did just enough to get my name in the paper. Within a quarter or two, I realized that, with a little studying, I could pull a 3.5 or 3.6. But going to a 3.9 or 4.0 was exponentially more difficult, and would mean less time to practice the Rubik’s Cube.

Seeing my name in the paper each quarter gave me confidence that was smart, and that carried over to the 8th grade. I consistently scored high marks in English and came to expect a high grade. It’s probably not a coincidence that some of my most memorable teachers taught English and the fact that I enjoyed learning about grammar, gerunds and even Shakespeare.

Feeling confident in my abilities, I began to ask questions. I wanted to understand why I was expected to structure my report in a specific manner or why a comma wasn’t appropriate in my writing. “Well, that’s just how it is.” was often the reply.

That didn’t sit well.

But I continued raising my hand and asking why. One afternoon, my 8th grade English teacher had had enough.  After one of my questions she shot back, “I don’t know! Because those are the rules!”

She leaned over my desk as she shouted that non-answer, inches away from my face.

And that’s when I changed. Instead of sulking back into my chair, I shifted forward and said, “Why do I have to follow rules even you don’t understand?”

My fellow students gasped in horror. I don’t recall what happened next, but when report cards came out a few weeks later, I had earned an A- for my work, but an “unsatisfactory” for citizenship.

When I told a friend about my big “U”, he laughed and shared that the only other student he knew with a similar citizenship mark had been caught hiding a bottle of Jack Daniels in his locker. Apparently I was in good company. If my parents were concerned with my lapse in judgment, they didn’t show it when I handed them my report card.

With my kids heading back to school this week, I thought back to this experience and wondered how I’d react now that I’m a parent. Like my parents, I want my children to respect each of their teachers. They deserve it. But I also don’t want them to simply be sponges in a seat. If a rule doesn’t make sense, I hope they ask for clarification. I’m OK if they push back a bit as long as it’s done with respect.

I still ask a lot of questions, but tend to keep most to myself.

Grades Don’t Always Tell The Story

During my second quarter of college since returning from a church mission, I met with the professor who taught a difficult German literature course. The quarter before, I’d taken a grammar class from this same professor. She was known for being tough on missionaries. She thought many were lazy in their approach to learning German and relied too much on their conversational skills while not spending enough time learning proper grammar. kafka

I didn’t want to be one of those lazy students so I studied hard for the tests and turned in all my assignments. I wasn’t a model college student by any means, but I wanted to prove her assessment of missionaries was wrong.

I earned an “A” in her grammar course. But one week into her literature course, and I was ready to wave the white flag. My concern with the class had to do with the amount of reading she required. I’m a slower than normal reader, and I felt dropping the course now and picking it up during a another quarter when I was taking fewer credit hours would be a wise move.

As I explained this to the professor, she got up from desk and paced the room. I figured my reasoning was solid, and all I needed was her signature to drop the course. When I finished listing my reasons, she returned to her chair and didn’t say a word. She wasn’t happy. That much was clear.

Then she stood up and walked around her desk to me. She told me she was disappointed that I was giving up after only a week. She dismissed each of my excuses. And she said something that stung:

“Given how well you did in my class last quarter you’re the last person I expected to see in my office ready to give up. Guess you’re just like the others.”

She said she expected more from me. If I needed help, why wasn’t I there to ask for it instead of begging for her signature? She wanted answers. I had them, but they were not the answers she was looking for.

But then she did something that I’d never seen a college professor do: she offered to meet with me as much as I needed if I would remain in class. She said the only way to improve my reading speed was to read more. That’s not what I wanted to hear, but she was right. So for the next two months, I met with her at least once a week to discuss works such as Parzival and Die Verwandlung.

She never once made me feel as though I was imposing on her schedule. There were several instances where she worked around my class and work schedule to meet with me even it meant she remained in her office well outside of normal office hours.

At the end of the quarter, I earned a “B” from the class. Even with the help, I struggled to finish the reading assignments. Initially, I was disappointed with the grade because I’d aced her grammar course while putting in far less effort.

But looking back, I learned a lot more than German literature that quarter. I learned to ask for help when I needed it. I learned how to build a solid relationship with a professor and gained a respect for the work they do which oftentimes goes unnoticed.

And I learned a lot about myself. I was still early into my college years, and learning to work through a difficult situation would prove to be beneficial many times over.

Without a doubt, it was the proudest “B” I’d ever earn.