More Pathetic

I got my first D on my first report card when I was six. It was at the end of the column of A’s. I did not know what Phys. Ed. was but I did know that D made my stomach feel weird. Now, fifty years later, as I squinted through the magnifying glass at the C on one of my first college tests, my stomach felt equally weird.  [pullquote]Maybe this Amish grandma would not survive college after all.[/pullquote] 

I moved the magnifying glass closer to it and stared at it some more. Yep, it still looked like a C. Surely this C was a misunderstanding, as that D had been.

That D happened in a one-room schoolhouse in the heart of Amish country in the 1960’s. There were no gym classes or PE instructors so the lone teacher of four grades simply graded the Phys.-Ed. line on the report card by how well we participated in games at recess and lunch hour. I hated games but loved books so unless I was chased outside, I spent every spare moment participating in the adventures of Dick, Jane, Sally, and Spot instead of playing Hide & Seek. After that D, though, I worked hard to avoid that weird feeling and saw mostly columns of A’s on the rest of my report cards.

Now, as I continued to stare at the horrible C and reflected on my weird-feeling stomach, I became aware that Kristen, the instructor, was talking.

“Okay, so for the first test of the semester this wasn’t bad but it wasn’t good either. The class average was a C and I must say I am disappointed.”

SHE was disappointed?! I had not known why my stomach felt weird at the sight of that D but I knew why it felt weird at the sight of this C. In fact, I moved through disappointment straight to disheartenment.

“You have a few minutes to look over the test and then you’ll need to hand them back,” Kristen continued.

“You mean you won’t go over them and explain what we did wrong,” I asked. Another equally plaintive voice asked if she’d curve the grade.

“No, we’re not going to waste time going over a test, and no, I never curve grades,” Kristen said flatly. “I will tell you that most of you got the same two questions wrong, and that experience has proven that the only reason for poor grades on any test is poor study habits.”

Poor study habits?! I had spent hours ‘n’ hours reading, taken pages ‘n’ pages of notes, written flash cards, and carried them everywhere. If those weren’t good study habits then what was? And, those study habits had gotten higher grades on other mid-terms so why a C on this one?

But Kristen wasn’t finished with her I’m-disappointed speech. “You can all bring your grades up on the next test by studying harder. And remember, this test is worth a lower percentage of your overall grade than the next one so you can easily get a higher grade on the final.”

After that class, I realized that I was as disappointed in Kristen as she said she was in our test scores. Given the context and the tone of her comments, her disappointment sounded fake and patronizing. In the grand scheme of things, one test score was not a big deal. But to see a leader destroy her credibility was. And from my perspective, Kristen had just destroyed a huge chunk of whatever credibility she may have had because she was not pathetic enough.

I wondered whether she had read Jay Heinrichs Thank You for Arguing. Remember his definition for pathetic—persuasive? Part of the persuasion technique for a leader of any group is to be aware of how much they can affect the mood of their audience.1 I wondered what would have happened if she’d been more pathetic.

If she had been pathetic enough to ask us why we thought we’d gotten such poor grades, at least one of us might have mentioned poor study habits or something similar. I know I would have mentioned the huge amount of information we had been expected to remember and the vague phrasing of some of the test questions.

If she had been pathetic enough to show the slightest bit of understanding at the difficulty of the class material or a glimmer of sympathy for us and all we freshman were dealing with, I would have felt less disheartened. I might even have asked how she defined good study habits.

If she had been more pathetic, then, her credibility would have stayed largely intact with at least one of her students.

1. Heinrichs, Jay. Thank You For Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson can teach us about the art of persuasion, 51. New York: Three Rivers Press. 2007.

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