Published May 5, 2005

I have this attitude problem: if I don’t agree with what The Man is saying, I’ll express my opposition through homework and test-taking. That’s right, I’ll rebel by expressing my opinions in soundly-formulated, grammatical, written arguments. Watch out, I’m a wild man.

Needless to say, this has not, historically, been the path to good grades for me. When I was in in fifth grade at Quaker School in Baltimore, the class went on a field trip to see the new National Cathedral in Washington. After the field trip ended, our teacher, Mrs. Locher, assigned us an essay on what we thought about the Cathedral. Now, my parents are big Francophiles, and we’d often traveled to France during the summer; by the time I was in fifth grade, I’d been to many of the greatest Cathedrals of France. Being a little know-it-all, I thought the National Cathedral was quite the Johnny-come-lately (completed 1990, vs. Notre Dame completed 13-something), and looked it too. Sadly, I was unimpressed, and I said so in my one-page essay written in cursive with a pencil.

The next day, Mrs. Locher asked me to speak with her after school. In the large fifth-grade classroom, she and the other fifth-grade teacher, a tall, skinny man with a tall, skinny tie, suggested to me rather strongly that I might rewrite the essay to be complimentary. A review, she explained, was supposed to be positive; I should be appreciative that the Cathedral hosted us (I now realize that all of the essays were going to be sent to the Cathedral in a show of thanks). Being, again, an insufferable know-it-all, I explained that I’d seen many cathedrals and I didn’t think too much of this one. That was clearly the wrong answer; I was given the option of rewriting my essay or getting a failing grade. Being a grade-grubbing, insufferable know-it-all, I rewrote the essay, although without much heart (what I wouldn’t do for a check-plus!)

That day I began to learn the lesson that discretion is the better part of valor. But, from time to time, I need to learn that lesson again. Like with my Management of Organizations midterm; didn’t do to well on that. I did well on the multiple choice questions and well on the essays, but I tanked the short answers. And why did I tank the short answers? Well, the short answers happened to be on a few topics that I thought we’d missed the meat of in class; so, instead of bringing in the readings and showing that I’d mastered the material, I advocated — with no support whatsoever (how much support can you have in three sentences?) — the positions I’d earlier advocated in class discussion.

Well, naturally I didn’t get many points for that. Any reasonable professor would have expected some evidence I’d done the reading and understood some of the theoretical framework. Welcome to B-ville, population: me. So, clearly, an alternative approach was needed for the Final, unless I was happy being nearly two standard deviations below the mean. The solition was clear: I needed to re-learn that old lesson; I needed to not sass back.

So, at the top of every page on the final exam, I wrote in big, tall letters, “Don’t Sass Back!” And, every time I started thinking about going off on a tangent and not bringing in the readings and theory and class discussions, those big tall letters brought me back to Earth. (This is not to say that I didn’t express my ideas; I did, just only in those placces where I could use the class learnings to support them). I stayed on-target, and I feel great about the final product.

I just wish I’d remembered to erase those “Don’t Sass Back!”s. That’s going to really confuse some poor TA.

1 Comment

i’ll always love that story!