The Grade Tells Nothing

GradesThe letter looms large on my transcript.

In the spring of ’93, I was attempting to wrap up my Bachelor of Arts degree in English. Lipscomb University required that all graduates receiving a B.A. complete 10 hours of foreign language, and I was 5 hours shy of the mark. Initially, my declared major had been Bible with an emphasis in youth ministry and in the fall of 1990 I had completed 5 hours of Koine (Hellenistic) Greek. Unfortunately, I encountered a bit of a “dark night of the soul” that fall and decided it best to transfer home to the University of Memphis for the spring term. Memphis didn’t offer Biblical languages, and I knew no Modern Greek, so I never finished the other required five hours. When I returned to Lipscomb the following fall, my original Greek teacher was no longer teaching the class, and the new professor was teaching Classical (Pre-Hellenistic) Greek, not Koine. Typically, they alternated years so I opted to wait another year to finish my credits so that I could have my original teacher and finish up the Koine. That never happened. The university changed their plan, and Koine wasn’t offered again while I was there. To graduate, I would have to take the second semester of Classical Greek two years after I had the first semester of Koine Greek. So I did.

I remember the class met every weekday morning from 7:40-8:40. The first day of class, all the other students wondered why I was there. They had been together every day for a semester already. Not only was I new to the group, but also it was obvious that I didn’t understand a word the professor said. It was totally Greek to me (sorry). I understood grammar, but I knew no vocabulary and couldn’t remember how to decline the nouns or conjugate the verbs. I was in trouble. I studied like mad for that first Test Friday, but was utterly dejected when I scored an 8 (no joke, and it wasn’t out of 10). I spoke to the professor about what I might do to improve my grade, but all I received was a diatribe about “grade inflation” and “how young people today expect to be handed everything.” I was crushed. I wanted to withdraw, but I simply couldn’t. Withdrawing would mean I’d have to stay in college for an additional year to get my foreign language credit and that was not an option.

I formulated a plan. At the next class meeting, I asked the smartest girl in the class (also the professor’s pet) to start tutoring me every day. This was the spring, which means it was tennis season and my afternoons were booked, so we agreed to meet at the library at 6:30 every morning to prep for an hour before class. We’d also return to the library after dinner each night to review vocabulary flashcards and review the first-semester information I’d missed. On the second test I scored a 15, but by now I was determined. I dug in my heels (and head) and decided to prove I could pass. I can honestly say I have never worked so hard in my whole life. With each test, my score improved, and I learned more about classical Greek and myself over the next few weeks than the professor, or anyone else could ever have imagined. Unfortunately, no one could tell from my test average how hard I was working or how much I’d learned.

Before the final exam, I poured everything I had into my Greek class. I never ate without looking over my Greek text or drilling through my flashcards. I was so committed to mastering the material that I remember scanning my flashcards in traffic while waiting for red lights to turn green. Finally, the day of the cumulative final exam dawned, and I arrived in class prepared to succeed. I had learned two semesters of classical Greek in one term while taking a full class load, playing varsity tennis, and performing the finale of a Singarama (long story) show. I was proud of all I’d accomplished. I did well scoring in the mid 90′s on the exam. In my mind, I had demonstrated my mastery of the subject, and I hoped that my professor would recognize it as well.

The letter looms large on my transcript, a 5-hour D. Nevermind that I made a 93 on the cumulative final exam or that I could parse sentences from Homer and Plato. Forget that I mastered 36 weeks of vocabulary (in 18 weeks) or that in the end, I was the one tutoring my classmates. I still received a D (my test average) for all my scholarship of Classical Greek, and to this day, every time I send my transcript with an application, I wonder what the recipient will think of it. What will they determine my abilities, my work ethic, or my character based on the letter on that page? The fact is the grade tells nothing about all I accomplished and became in that class. It provides no legitimate feedback, no authentic evaluation of the learning that occurred or the work it describes. Is it an accurate reflection of my average test grade? Probably. But then, there’s a difference between a test grade and learning, isn’t there. As an assessment of my learning, the grade tells nothing. It fails in that regard.

And yet, the letter looms large on my transcript.