Tuesday, March 13, 2012


During high school, my parents told me not to worry about my grades. “Take the most advanced classes you can,” my father said. “Colleges like to see that you’ve challenged yourself.”

I wanted to challenge myself, too. I took every honors and advanced placement course that would fit in my schedule: American history, calculus, chemistry, physics, music theory, English. They were hard classes, and I was a stress-case of a student, staying up all night to study, writing endless sheets of notes. It was miserable a lot of the time, but I loved taking the most rigorous possible schedule, testing myself to see if I could hack it.

At the beginning of my senior year, I met with our high school’s college-placement counselor, which was the recommended thing to do. She greeted my mother and I with a grim face as she opened the folder containing my files.

“Your grade point average is only 3.6,” was the first thing she said. “When colleges see that, they will wonder why your grades are so low compared to your standardized test scores.”

I was puzzled. A 3.6 meant roughly half A’s and half B’s, with a few more A’s. I knew it wasn’t perfect, but I figured it was okay. The B’s were in my most difficult classes, math, science, classes in which maintaining a B had been hard work. Or sometimes they were in physical education, where I never suited up properly and usually snuck out halfway through class. I wasn’t exactly a model student, sure, but in my academic classes at least, you couldn’t accuse me of not working.

“It’s fine if school isn’t your priority,” the counselor said. “I can respect that. But the colleges will think you’re not living up to your potential.”

School isn’t my priority? I was dumbfounded. Had she ever been in an AP calculus class? If school wasn’t your priority, “B” would not describe how things would go for you.

I knew the counselor was crazy, but her accusation still haunted me: Colleges will think you’re not living up to your potential. Each time I got a rejection letter from a college, it was easy to blame my mediocre GPA. “I guess you should have taken easier classes that you could get A’s in,” my father said, disappointed that I had not been accepted to any of the Ivy League schools that we couldn’t afford anyway. I did get interviews for some of those schools, and looking back, I think the problem was more likely my teenaged understanding of “professional attire” (the thrift-store sweater and skirt without the holes) or my professed (and short-lived) love for Camille Paglia’s book Sexual Personae. But at the time, I was sure my horrendous grades had held me back, indicators of laziness and indifference.

Once I set my sights on graduate school, I learned not to take any college class that I thought I couldn’t get an A in. I avoided history, science, foreign languages, knowing how bad I am at memorizing lots of little separate facts. English was my major, but I knew that I couldn’t get A’s in English classes if I took too many at once. I padded my schedule with courses in linguistics, a subject that suits my brain so perfectly that I could get an A+ without studying for any of the exams. Then I found that I could really impress my English professors by incorporating ideas from linguistics, which I understood far better than they did, into my English essays. It was a cheap trick, but it turned getting an A into a guarantee instead of a gamble.

I knew that the top English PhD programs would only accept students with very high GPAs, not necessarily straight-A’s only, but close. Often, in fits of anxiety, I would calculate my average by hand during a lecture, running different scenarios: if I were to get one B next semester, what would that do? What if I take one class pass/fail?

It makes me sad to think of having spent college this way, trying to construct a marketable transcript to sell to the highest bidder. Of course I learned an amazing amount there, but that learning was always tinged with terror, the desperate need to do well enough, the unacceptability of failure. I think of all the classes I might have taken if I wasn’t worried about my grades—history, science, languages—and how much I might have learned in those classes, even if it happened not to be A learning but B or even C learning.

Grading does some good things for students. It gives them something to aim for, shows them how they are doing in comparison with other students, affords a sense of accomplishment. But the bad thing it does is turn education, and the educated student, into a commodity. Students don’t generally strive to get good grades just for their own sense of self-worth (if you don’t believe me, check out a spring-semester senior transcript). Good grades are worth something, and they can buy advantages like a job or college admission.

My kung fu teacher often says that students are acquisitive about learning kung fu forms (choreographed routines). Instead of learning a few forms well, we want to learn as many as possible, more than we can possibly practice on a regular basis, so we can have more than everyone else. That’s also how grading students teaches them to be—acquisitive. They earn the grade, and they can stash that grade away like an arcade ticket until they have enough of them to win a prize.

Sometimes I wish I could teach my English students the way my kickboxing teachers have taught me. In a combined-levels class, everyone learns the same lessons again and again, until they aren’t even lessons anymore but parts of our own minds and bodies. Some students are naturals and they come in throwing an A roundhouse kick without any experience. Most students struggle to learn, and work harder in their first year than they will ever work again, harder than the experienced students whose bodies could do the moves as they sleep. A grade is a score relative to others, but in this class, it doesn’t matter how you are doing in relation to others; it matters that you are trying your hardest. If you aren’t trying your hardest, you won’t learn, which means you have wasted your time and money. That’s what I wish school could be about: earning knowledge, information, and ability, not a grade.