Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

A few Sundays ago, I was sitting in the Market Grille, reading my niece’s college application essays and waiting for my breakfast.

I’d been for an early morning walk on one of the last warm, blue-sky days in Meadville. I’d been to church and I’d had a long talk with my mother. I was having a perfectly beautiful, sacred Sunday.

“Professor Hatch.”

I looked up to find a student from last semester, arms wrapped in a tight hug around her body.

Hi. You’re back?

No, I’m visiting.

I looked back at my niece’s essay.

Remember that story you told us, she said. When your professor in graduate school gave you a “B” to teach you a lesson when you had a 4.0 GPA?

It was an A- (the journalist-—and the straight-A student—in me wants the facts straight.)

Well, I want you to know you gave me the lowest grade I ever received at Allegheny. Because of you, I didn’t graduate summa cum laude. Because of you—she mumbled something about her comp. You cost me thousands of dollars at graduate school.

So the next time you want to teach someone a lesson, you should think about what it’s going to cost them.

And she pivoted and fled.

She clearly hadn’t learned anything.

I learned plenty with that one A-. Sure, I was upset. I wanted that “perfect” 4.0. It’s an illusion, that perfection. I know now the value of my education is not measured in a tally of points. Grades matter—but ultimately, they don’t. It’s who you are and how you apply what you’ve learned that truly matters.

I thought I’d earned an A; I hadn’t. I stewed about it. It still has a bit of sting these many years later. I did not; however, blame my professor or take it out on him in a restaurant.

I’m starting my second year at Allegheny. I’ve had students sit in my office and berate me, blame me for their failures. I have received a hostile email with a not-so-veiled threat. I’ve had a parent leave a message telling me to call her to discuss her student’s grade.

Compare the first student—whom I will attest does not represent the majority of students I teach—with another young woman.

This student had dropped out of communication with her mentor. A couple of stern emails from her mentor indicated that if she didn’t get in communication soon, her work would be forfeit.

I asked her to come to my office to talk to me. She showed up.

What’s going on, I asked.

I screwed up, she replied. I need to apologize. I need to clean up the mess I’ve made.

What’s your approach when you mess up? Do you run away from the problem? Do you stick your head in the sand? Or do you deal with it?

I guess I put my head in the sand, she said.

You realize just because you ignore the problem it doesn’t go away?

When you were a kid and you got a splinter, if you pulled it out right away, that was it. Problem solved. No more pain. What would happen if you didn’t take care of it? It would get infected. If you continued to ignore it, you could get blood poisoning and die.

When you make a mistake, it’s best to take responsibility and clean it up as soon as possible.

I will, she said. And she did.

Later in the day, in an act of inspired serendipity, a former student posted a quote on Facebook. It was a fitting conclusion to this tale of two students.

“An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.” (O. A. Battista, a Canadian-American chemist and author)

As a journalist and a writer, I love language and I believe in the power of words. The first student had not one first-person pronoun in any of her pronouncements. The second student had an “I” in every sentence. One cast blame and shirked responsibility; the other accepted responsibility and took action to correct her mistake.

I don’t know the GPA of either student. I can tell you, in my estimation, it won’t matter in the wider world. The young woman who had no problem accosting me in public and blaming me for her failures will not be a success regardless of the high grades she covets.

The student who admitted her mistake, owned it and took action to correct her missteps is already a success in my book. Again, regardless of her grade tally.

For the record, professors do not give grades; students earn them.

And if you are a student and you want to focus on an “A,” focus on an “A” for accountability.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.