In Paragraph City, the calendar is punctuated by crescendos of panic and pleading, timed to the semester’s end. It’s such a human thing, this amnesia of what’s to come: we plod the mall on Christmas Eve, we summon lawyers to deathbeds to draw up our wills, we fiddle away our children’s childhood as the center of our attention and then try to teach thankfulness when they are teens. And in Paragraph City we turn our every resource to earn the grade we need in the last four days of the semester.
These days it happens via email or phone, the post-final encounters with amnesiacs; they used to bring faces of contrition or anger or panic to office doorways; but the words are essentially the same. I’m thinking just now of two, let’s call then Jonah and John: different young men with different stories and different woes but the same basic route to those woes. Yet what’s interesting to me is how I’m affected by part two of their stories.
Jonah is right out of high school, and I see him on the first day of class in a simple, five week orientation to college class. He looks like success. It’s not that he doesn’t fit in or isn’t a regular guy, but he’s alert and noticing everything happening – not the bored slouch that’s the usual uniform of the freshman. He jots down a few notes on the syllabus, already has the textbook, asks a useful question, and doesn’t pack up his goods before the class ends. So the semester proceeds. He skips a couple too many classes, doesn’t do one project, but is otherwise great and gets a B in the class. Grades are recorded, ten weeks go by, and now final grades are posted and I get a call from his mother. She’s polite and since I’m also Jonah’s advisor it’s not completely out of line that she wants to know some things about his scholarship. Jonah has a full ride scholarship, I learn, which he will lose if his grade drops below a 3.0, and though they are still waiting on his English Comp grade, Jonah has finally spilled the beans that things look grim.
So I explain to mom about final grades, that once the semester has ended there’s probably not “something he can do,” but that the grade in a course is entirely the instructor’s decision. And that the scholarship is probably gone for good once his GPA has crashed, but to call Financial Aid. What I know but can’t tell her is that Jonah’s comp instructor has also noticed the success thing about him and has bemoaned his lack of attendance, his lack of interest in revising, and his absence in the prep sessions for the final exam.
The next day, the day that final grades are due, four days after final exams were given and ten weeks after he got the grade in my class, he emails me to ask if there isn’t something he can do to raise his grade in my class. His D in the comp class pulls his average down, but if he could get an A in my class – he and his mom have done the math – he could keep his scholarship. So that’s his ‘part one.’
John is in my English Comp 2 class, having breezed through Comp 1 on his natural abilities as a writer. He’s a vet and ready to work hard, though it helps if he can see the reason behind the hard work, and I suspect that reason is hazy when it comes to writing. He has a pragmatist’s perspective to life. He skips class too frequently, but is judicious about what to skip and never loses points by his absence. He’s getting a C in the course. Or he is until the final paper, which is longer, more formal, involves more sources, and has more components, the relevant one for this tale being an annotated Works Cited page, required for the paper to be acceptable. When his paper comes in late, I see the annotations missing and email him that he has until the late deadline, about 24 hours, to get the annotations in. He doesn’t, the paper is unacceptable, and he fails the course. (None of this should surprise him: it’s in the assignment, we wrote annotated entries in two different classes, I distributed a checklist of essentials, and we looked at successful and failing papers from a prior semester, including those missing this piece.)
A day after the late-deadline ends, he says he can email me the missing piece. I email back that it’s too late. He asks me why I waited to the last minute to email the warning to him. I remind him that he turned the paper in late. He says the annotations aren’t that important. I refer him to the checklist and assignment and the fact that they add about a thousand words to the assignment. He wants to know what he can do. I refer him to my dean and let him know I’ll send the assignment, checklist, reading assignments covering annotations, and the dates we wrote the annotations in class so my dean can have some background for the discussion.
What I know but can’t tell Jonah and John, is about Sharon, a single mom in John’s class, every single day, who hired a baby sitter so she could work on her paper, and took on extra hours at work so she could afford a good internet connection at home so she can submit work late at night, and broke a date in order to finish that final paper on time. I imagine myself telling her that I gave Jonah and John some extra time to do their work because they asked for it. And I can’t tell them about the woman in Jonah’s class, whose child has cancer and who emailed her work into her instructor from a waiting room of Roswell Cancer Institute, or Jack, who is living in his in-law’s basement with his new bride while they both work two part-time jobs and keep two full-time student loads in order to maintain their student grants and loans.
So I just tell them both that I’m sorry, but I can’t give them privileges that no one else gets, and that I know that’s hard to hear, but also that it’s not the end of the world. They will work around it. And a day passes and something interesting happens. John makes an appointment with my dean and then cancels it. Jonah sends me an email saying he understands, and he apologizes. He says it’s not who he is, someone who wants the rules broken for him, that he just got caught up in the financial crash coming at him and lost his way for a while. John’s OK with me in a no-harm-no-foul sort of way, but Jonah I’ll be looking to do a good turn for.
And both of them are like us all, in the mall or spoiling our kids. We just lose our way sometimes, and we take the consequences. In my office in Paragraph City, after grades have been turned in and I leave at last for Christmas, I turn out the lights and feel the burden of being in charge of consequences, in itself a consequence.