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Grades Matter (Redoux)

by Martin Lindauer

The Professor had long ago stopped expecting students to be junior versions of himself. Nonetheless, he hoped to open the minds of a few–except Wojesky, standing in front of the door to his classroom, easily recognizable: he’s the one who slept through his lectures. “Not a good place or time for a conference, Wojesky,” the Professor said. “As I announced in class at our last meeting–if you were awake–I’m going over the exam today. Make an appointment during office hours.”

Wojesky pulled off the baseball cap perched backwards on his head, squeezed the “NY” emblem on its front between his hands, swept a shock of unkempt hair away from his eyes, raised a stubbled chin, and looked appealingly at his teacher. “Uh, I know I didn’t do too good on the exam. That’s why I’m here, sir. Do you think I have a chance of passing your course.” A faded T-shirt, the name of a rock group across its front nearly washed out, sagged around his neck.

Wojesky’s anxiety was understandable. Failing had more serious consequences than having to take a course over again. It was a matter of life and death. If your grades fell low enough to drag your overall average down, you’d flunk out of college, lose your student deferment, and be drafted for the Vietnam War.

The Professor put his briefcase down and pulled out his record book although he knew the answer to Wojesky’s question without looking it up. Nonetheless, to be sure, he scanned the row of red entries next to Wojesky’s name. “Hmm, not too good, I’m afraid, as you probably already know,” he told the waiting student. “You’ve failed both exams and haven’t turned in either of the required papers. I gave you a ‘charitable D-‘ as a mid-term grade only because you spelled my name correctly on the exam.” The Professor gave a snort to signal a joke.

Wojesky didn’t smile. “Uh, thanks doc. About my attendance, sir. I’ve had trouble getting to class. My car’s been giving me a lot of trouble….”

“How far do you live from campus?” the Professor interrupted.

“Uh, it’s not just my car that’s the problem, sir. My girl left me a month ago and I’ve been, uh, depressed, not sleeping much, ya know, that sort of thing. That’s why I’m kind ‘a quiet in class. Sleepy, too.”

“Hmm. Have you considered seeing someone in the counseling office?” the Professor asked, his hand on the doorknob, eager to end the conversation.

“Nah, no shrink’s gonna help me with my biggest headache, my scum-bag roommate. It’s kinda’ hard hitting the books with him horsing around with his girlfriend every night of the week.”

The Professor did not suggest the library as a place to study, anticipating a litany of excuses: It closes too early, it’s shut on weekends, it’s noisy, it’s too hot…. After the first exam, Wojesky had used his grandmother’s illness as an excuse. After the second one, it was her hospitalization. He expected her death to be an excuse for the last exam. The Professor wondered why Wojinsky hadn’t mentioned a dog chewing up his term papers–while away from the house picking up prescriptions for his grandmother, of course.

The Professor waited silently as a few stragglers pushed past him and into the classroom before resuming the conversation. “The only hope you have of passing the course is ‘acing’ the final. That means getting an ‘A.’ But even if that unlikely event happened, the best you can hope for is a ‘D.’” Wojesky flinched. “Sorry, but that’s the way it is, given your record.“

“About the final, doc, is it possible for me to take it early? I can’t be on campus during exam week since my grandmother ain’t well, as ya know, and probably won’t live much longer. I want to be at her side before she, uh, expires. We’re very close, ya know, ever since my folks got divorced and I got dumped in one foster home after another. I coulda’ lost my dog when the family broke up but grandma took him in. Along with me. She’s a great lady. I gotta stay at her bedside.”

The Professor pursed his lips, wondering why Wojesky hadn’t used the break up of his family or living in foster homes as excuses. “Hold on a couple ‘a minutes while I distribute the exams to the class.”

The Professor thumped his briefcase on the desk in front of the classroom, pulled out the graded exams, called students’ names, and handed out blue booklets. “I want these back after class,” he reminded them.

He turned to Wojesky standing at the side of his desk. “Here’s yours.” Blood-red notations clogged margins, spilled over lines, and filled blank spaces at the ends of paragraphs. Wojesky shoved the exam into a notebook without looking at it.

The students studied their exams, compared grades with neighbors, and mentally composed complaints to hurl at the Professor later. They waited, though, until he wrote a list of the key terms he looked for in their essays on the blackboard.

Wolsky leaned close to the Professor at the blackboard and spoke softly. “Look, doc, about my chances of passing the course. You wouldn’t want me gettin’ killed in a stupid war, would you, just because I flunked your course? Have you read the latest news about Vietnam this morning?” He pushed a creased newspaper, open to the sports page, into the professor’s hand.

He pushed it away. “Don’t blame me for your problems,” he hissed, keeping his voice low so the class wouldn’t overhear their conversation. “If you had shown any kind of effort you might at least be passing.”

The Professor was certain that Wojesky was not college material and deserved to flunk out. What happened as a consequence was not his concern. Yet he hesitated. Whatever Wojesky’s faults as a student, as real and numerous as they were, he was still a human being, and deserved some respect and consideration. Wojesky had his hopes and goals, ambitions and plans–even though they were not the same as the Professor’s.

“Where are you from, Wojesky?” the Professor asked, suspending his writing on the blackboard, hoping a few pleasantries might reduce the awkwardness of the situation.

Wojesky stared at the Professor for a few seconds, perhaps to figure out what sort of answer might help his grade.
“Downstate, the Bronx.” he finally said.

“How come you didn’t go to one of the state colleges closer to New York City?”

Wojesky looked uncomfortable. “Uh, to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t too good a student in high school, as you can probably guess, and this was the only college that would take me.” He gave the Professor a grim look. “I guess I’ll be heading back to the city and getting ready for ‘Nam. Hope my grandma can take my leaving her, what with her being alone, weak, sick, and all.”

The students finished going over their exams and waited for the Professor to address their grips about ambiguous questions, questions about the legitimacy of more than one right answer, how much the test counted towards the final grade, and whether improvement from the first to last exam would be taken into account in calculating their average.

The Professor was aware of the students’ impatience, and told Wojesky, once again, to see him after class. “We’ll talk some more.” Wojesky nodded and slouched to the back of the classroom past the waving hands of students eager to justify answers marked wrong.

For the next 20 minutes, the Professor listened to passionate attacks on the distribution of grades, heart-felt criticisms about the scoring of the essays, and strident demands for extra credit while part of his mind nibbled at Wojesky’s problem.

The effect of grades on draft deferments had been vigorously debated by his colleagues at faculty meetings. Nearly all were opposed to the Vietnam War and were also well aware of the impact of grades on the students’ eligibility for the draft. The majority of Professors maintained an ivory tower attitude towards the “purity” of grades, arguing that the intellectual independence of the academy must be immune from the expediencies of politics and the urgency of the marketplace. “Grades are too important to be treated as a commodity,” Professor Harding of the Philosophy Department argued. “It is unfair, under any circumstance, even under the pressures of a war, to give students an undeserved grade.”

In contrast, a less numerous but vocal group of new instructors, assistant Professors, part-timers, and adjuncts, took a more personal and humane stand. They railed against the overuse and abuse of grades, their exploitation by societal and business interests for narrow and commercial ends, the exaggerated esteem in which they were held by parents and employers, and the overgeneralized and unjustified effects they had on students’ lives outside of the classroom. The proper use of grades, the radicals insisted, was to advise and guide, to change students’ behavior, and to modify instructors’ teaching practices. “We should not play into the hands of the military-industrial complex by buying into the importance of grades,” argued Mr. Stevens, an instructor working towards his doctorate at Berkeley.

The Professor had listened intently to both sides of the issue, found validity in each position as well as difficulties, and was left with mixed feelings. Grades, after all, had sent him to Korea years ago.

He had enrolled in R. O. T. C. to strengthen his student draft deferment even though it meant a two-year stint in the Army following graduation. Uninterested in memorizing the specifications of the M-1 rifle, casual about marching ramrod straight, and feeling it was important to say “Please” before he gave orders and “Thank you” afterwards, the Professor-to-be barely passed his Military Science courses. Too late, he found out that R. O. T. C. grades determined the assignments of newly commissioned officers. Graduates with “A” averages stayed stateside, those with less than perfect grades, “A-“ and “B+,” went to Okinawa, the Philippines or Japan, perhaps Germany, and the rest were shipped to Korea. In Seoul, the new Second Lieutenants with “B” and “B-” averages were assigned to the capitol, Seoul, several miles behind the front. All but one. The future Professor, with his “C“ average, was sent to the DMZ, the border between North and South Korea, no-man’s land, where he led an isolated platoon-sized detachment. As punishment for resisting a General’s order to cut down a laundry line on which the men hung their damp shirts (blouses in military terms), he was court-martialed for insubordination and assigned to a deactivated battalion. Unexpectedly, it was reactivated, and as the only officer available his responsibilities were greatly expanded. He ended his two-year tour of duty as a staff officer, S-2, in charge of Intelligence and Security, and additional titles that included Fire Control-, Payroll-, Recreation-, Morale-, Education- and Venereal Disease Control- Officer. He had more challenging duties than his fellow R.O.T.C. officers with higher GPAs and holding desk jobs in Seoul, Tokyo, Manila, Okinawa, Heidelberg, and Washington.

The Professor’s recollections were interrupted by the sound of exams, notebooks, and textbooks being shoved into backpacks and chairs scraping away from desks. The end of the hour was approaching, and anticipating the bell, students were preparing to leave. The Professor raced to the door to collect the exams as the students left. Wojesky stayed behind.

As the Professor sorted the exams he imagined Wojesky on patrol in Vietnam, in combat gear, his face smeared with camouflage paint, weapon held loosely across his chest, finger on a trigger, safety off, eyes screening the underbrush on both sides of a trail or looking up at the branches of trees above, and reviewed the many good reasons for failing Wojesky.

I’m sure he’s flunking all his other classes, not just mine. I won’t be the only one responsible if he’s drafted. What can I do, if anything, to improve his chances of passing my course?
Several possibilities came to mind.

I could meet with him and review the material on the final, extend the due dates for the missing papers, let him write a report for extra credit, give him make-up exams for the ones he failed….

The Professor shook his head. He didn’t think Wojesky would benefit. He also didn’t have the time, having promised his family a short vacation between semesters. In addition, the deadline was approaching for submitting an article to a journal. Even if he could squeeze in a meeting or two with Wojesky, he didn’t think he was worth the trouble.

The Professor shoved the exam papers into his briefcase, his only souvenir from Korea, and a string of memories from the past were triggered.

I was the CO of a detachment on the DMZ defending my country. I headed a battalion (although deactivated). I attended meetings with high ranking officers from battalions, regiments, divisions, and Corps even though I was only a Second Lieutenant. When the battalion was reactivated, I became one of four staff officers. I flew to detachments on the DMZ, a .45 strapped at my side, gathering intelligence reports, and forwarding them to Seoul, which then sent them on to Tokyo and Washington, where they were read by officers with higher R. O. T. C. grades than mine.

Everything good that’s happened was due to low grades.

The Professor looked at Wojesky standing nearby. “Sometimes, son, you just have to let fate take its course.”

“Man is not the creature of circumstances.
Circumstances are the creature of men.” (Disraeli)

Martin Lindauer has published short fiction, essays, and memoirs in Glasschord Magazine, Ha!, The Jewish Magazine, Long Story Short, New Vilna Review, Oracle, Poetica, The Short Humour Site, Slab, Sleet, and in several anthologies. He served in the Korean War as a First Lieutenant on the DMZ.

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