(if you’re here for the first time look at Blogs 1 -12 in earlier posts )
It was the last day of Fall semester and Maddie was in shock. She had just stopped by Dr. Carothers’ office to look at the grades for Quantitative Genetics posted on the door. There, on the dark wood frame, next to her student number, was her grade. It was a C!
She rubbed her eyes, incredulous. Her expectations had been of a firm B. Someone came through the double doors at the end of the hall and passed behind her. Maddie prayed it wasn’t someone who knew her. She moved closer to the door and tried to decipher the numbers on the paper. Her fingers traced the line on the page to her final exam grade, a seventy-nine. But her semester average was eighty four percent. Running her eyes down the column she saw it was one of the lowest in the class. Furthermore, there were many students scoring in the nineties, several with nearly perfect scores. Again, the hall doors swung open and her hand dropped quickly to her side. It was apparent that Dr. Carothers had graded on a curve, and that the curve was unusually high.
It was such an unexpected blow Maddie didn’t know how to take it in. Slowly, she walked through the corridors back to her office, internalizing a number of sensations that were foreign to her. In all her graduate career she had never landed a C. All at once it hit her: a C meant she would be put on academic probation! And if she could not pull her grades up by the following semester she would jeopardize her fellowship!
Upon the heels of this realization came a sense of shame. But it was tinged with disbelief. How could she not have known that she was doing so poorly? She never dreamed the curve could be so high. In her experience, eighty percent would have been a B. She had never seen a curve lower the grades. And even though she had struggled with the class, it hadn’t occurred to her she was having a harder time than everyone else. Did this mean she was not on a par with her colleagues? But no— she had gotten high B’s in Physiological Genetics and Epidemiology. It wasn’t a brilliant record, but at least there she was holding her own.
Looking back on the semester, it had been a challenge, but it had never occurred to her that she was not up to the demand. Now, it seemed as if some sinister thing was sneering at her, saying, we always knew you wouldn’t succeed, that you were a fraud. How was she going to face Dr. Gates?
She swatted the air, as if striking at cobwebs, then stomped her feet in determination. Her father’s often repeated admonition, “Don’t let the turkeys get you down,” began to seep in. Pulling together the tenuous threads of her confidence she got up from her desk and walked down the corridors, back to Dr. Carothers’ office.
His door was slightly ajar and she knocked on it softly. “Dr. Carothers?”
He looked up from his desk. “Yes?”
It wasn’t very promising, no “What can I do for you?,” but she swallowed and said: “I’d like to talk to you about my grade…”
“Very well,” he said, “Go on,” pointing to the chair in front of his desk.
Maddie sat on the tip of it, and cleared her throat, “Dr. Carothers, I’ve got to confess I was truly shocked at my final grade. I…I thought I was doing fairly well. My average overall is eighty four percent. I felt sure I was in the B range.”
He looked blank. “Well, Ms. Hawkins, the grades on the final exam were very good and this, of course, pulled the curve up somewhat.”
“Yes, sir, but like I said, I thought I had a solid B. I mean…”
“The cut-off for a B was eighty five percent,” he stated, matter-of-fact.
“But why?” Maddie felt she was not getting her point across.
“Why? Ms. Hawkins, I can’t give everyone a top grade, you know.” He spoke as if this were strictly impossible. “How would that look?”
“You mean, you have to have some people do poorly? Why can’t everyone do well?”
“A C is a respectable grade, Ms. Hawkins,” he said with finality. His tone implied he saw no reason to change his procedure.
“Not to me it isn’t,” Maddie mumbled under her breath.
“Well, if you review your exam and can find a few more points you can come back.” He handed her the exam as he spoke.
Maddie walked out of his office feeling thoroughly dejected. She didn’t have the courage to tell him that because of what had been essentially a whim on his part, because of one point, she was going to incur such serious consequences. All because this man could not accept that everyone could do well, because he had to have a perfect bell curve distribution to his grades.
It was almost three o’clock. Maddie was starving, strung out from lack of sleep, and demoralized. She decided to step out to McDonalds. It wasn’t her favorite place, but it was one of the few places on this end of campus to get a quick bite. It would postpone the unpleasant task of telling Dr. Gates. When the cold December air hit her lungs she gasped, and then pulled up her hood. A steady drizzle of snow was coming down and the wind-chill was obviously dropping.
While she stood in line Maddie stared at the dirty floor, pieces of French fries and straw wrappers were scattered here and there, mashed into the melting remnants of snow. She looked up and noticed a group of underclassmen at a table in the corner. They were exuberantly loud, as African-American youth often tended to be, and Maddie was heartened that they were probably blowing off steam after a grueling round of finals. They reminded her somewhat of the kids she had been tutoring this past semester.
Maddie had lost track of Jimmy three weeks ago when he’d missed a scheduled meeting. She’d left a couple of phone messages trying to track him down but he had returned none of them. She hoped he was all right and had made it through his finals without too much difficulty.
In a strange coincidence, when she sat down to her meal she saw Dawn come in with a couple of other girls. They were all black, just like the other group. Maddie always felt a slight rebellion when confronted with the status quo segregation of social relationships. The racial segregation so ingrained in high school followed these kids to college and into their adult lives, apparently never to be broken. And it was a pattern imposed from without by the majority community as well as accepted voluntarily by the minority community.
When Dawn looked up Maddie waved. Dawn left her group and came over to her table.
“How you doing, Dawn?” Maddie noticed in her own voice the slight colloquialism that came out whenever she spoke to another African-American. That always got muted when she spoke to people in the Department.
“I’m good, Maddie, real good,” the girl answered, although she seemed a bit subdued.
“How did you do on your Organic Chemistry?”
“Oh Maddie, I got an A! And it was all due to you. Thank you, so much.”
“Ooh girl,” Maddie reached up and hugged her. “That’s great!! I’m so proud of you. And listen, it was none of my doing. You did the work, Dawn.” She was squeezing Dawn’s arm. But the girl’s eyes were still somewhat clouded.
“Miz Hawkins…” she began. Dawn always lapsed into the formal address when she was nervous, despite the many times Maddie had asked her to call her by her first name. Early conditioning in Black cultural etiquette was hard to break away from. “Did you hear about Jimmy?”
An uneasy dread descended on Maddie. “No,” she said, “I’ve been trying to get a hold of him. What’s happened? Tell me.”
Dawn swallowed. Maddie was alarmed because she saw a moist sheen come over the girl’s green eyes.
“He tried to commit suicide.”
“Oh…Oh no!” Maddie gasped, holding the sides of her face. “Oh my God! When did it happen? Why?”
“I guess it was just too much for him. He wasn’t doing real good in his classes and felt the pressure too much. A couple of the other guys found him in time and got him to the hospital. He’s gone home Miss Hawkins. He quit.” The agony in her voice was palpable.
“What do you mean, he quit?”
“He quit school. For good.”
Maddie continued to shake her head, unable, for a few minutes, to say anything. She looked at the other girls in the booth. The tragedy had probably cast a pall over all the kids in that circle.
Maddie said what words of comfort she could think of. Things on the nature of “they mustn’t take it too hard,” that “the important thing was that Jimmy was all right.” But deep down she knew he wasn’t all right. An episode like this scarred you for life and changed its course. And those around you were scarred too. What had crushed that bright flower of promise that had been Jimmy’s future? Careless handling? A hostile world? Whom could she blame? What forces had driven him out of the game before he’d barely stepped onto the court?
She sat there for a long time, reflecting on his situation and gradually drifting back to her own. Slowly, she rose and put on her coat. She tied the hood on tightly and then wrapped her wool scarf across her mouth. Lastly, she put on her gloves and made sure her coat sleeves were pulled over them. She pushed the glass doors open against the wind. It was time she went back to the Department and faced Dr. Gates.
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QUESTION 12: Can you relate to Maddie and Jimmy’s experiences?
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