While I was in Boston last weekend, I picked up my mail. Tax documents and scholarly publications poured into my luggage - and a slim envelope postmarked from Olin, several months old. I had requested my own copy of my college transcript while applying for grad school.
The last time I looked at my transcript had been during my college commencement, which was shaky and uncertain - until a few days before the ceremony, it was up in the air whether I'd graduate or not. By that time, I had adopted the practice of never, ever looking at my grades - I knew that measuring stick still had too much power over me and would actually hinder my learning with worries about performance. I'd tried to wrench myself free from that sophomore year by ceasing my frequent fretting and re-calculations of my GPA cold turkey - and the pleasure I took in my schooling and the learning I got out of it seemed to me to rocket dramatically upward.
My parents were annoyed, of course; I'm not sure if they would have been more frustrated if they'd seen my actual grades rather than my refusal to show them to anyone who might pass judgment. But I knew that sort of judgment would crush any other assessment I had of myself, and I wanted to be free of it.
Looking back on that piece of paper, I saw a story; A's and A-'s and some lonely B+'s and all sorts of academic extracurriculars (the Putnam Exam! Abstract Algebra Independent Study! Japanese Language Passionate Pursuit!) crammed into my freshman year, a desperate race to keep my intellect "ahead" - if I wasn't a good student, then who would I be? I also saw regular 7am bedtimes before my 9am classes and a 17-year-old constantly in various states of collapse - sleeping under the desks in the room where I had class the next day, on the couch outside the lab, being roused in the lounge by friends passing by who found me slumped over a textbook. My grades were great. I knew a lot of facts, how to cleverly bend MATLAB to my will (an ability I've since lost), how to launch proofs blindly into the mathematical aether and land firmly, elegantly, down onto the theorem I was assigned.
And that was roughly all I knew.
Sophomore year, I started teaching, as a TA for the intro freshman integrated math-physics block. I loved it, my students loved me, and I spent far more hours than I was allowed to log on my timesheet sitting with them, writing study notes for them, explaining calculus and physics. My grades began to slide into the occasional B. I found a math class that I wasn't fond of - the professor was fantastic, but I didn't care about cranking through differential equations and statistics - and decided, for the first time in my life, to skip class. It was an 8am class, and I could get another 2 precious hours of sleep in the morning if I read the textbook instead, which took me 20 minutes as opposed to 2 hours. I spent the 1 hour 40 minutes saved twice a week doing something I loved more - teaching. I read the book and showed up for exams and scored a solid and somewhat deliberate C.
It's important to note, I think, that at the same time, I was taking what was considered to be an even harder math class full of older students - in fact, one that had this one as a prerequisite (I'd gotten waived through by the prof) - and I was charging through that one (Partial Differential Equations) with flying colors. I didn't even need to take it, as an electrical and computer engineer - but I wanted to, and it was beautiful - I mean, we derived the Fourier Transform! - enchanted, I read my Dover textbook so many times it was falling apart by the end of the semester. And it's also important to note that my best paper of the year was done for the first math class, the one I got a C in... a statistical analysis of the Red Sox wins written in Dr. Seussian meter with puns throughout. Not what you'd expect from a C student.
I'd also joined the Human Powered Vehicles team on a whim, the only non-mechanical engineer on a team largely composed of hardcore bikers, and spent evenings climbing through dumpsters to find frames to weld together for our beast. I jumped deeper into the drama club as an assistant stage manager and props fabricator. I drove to aikido lessons in the city with my friend Mark several times a week, started carpe-dieming 3:14am pancakes, discovered Alfie Kohn and Neil Postman and John Holt and other radical education writers... and stopped looking at my grades, which slipped to B's and C's. Sophomore year. It might look on paper like my grades started to nosedive, but my life was taking off.
Junior year. More teaching, this time for the modeling, control, and circuits class I'd barely passed (during Pass/No-Credit semester) my freshman year; I begged my professors to let me be a TA because I wanted to learn the material, saying that I learned best by teaching - they took a chance, and it was true! I'd started talking with professors, wandering into the offices of administrators, finding out the rhythms and the whispers and the small behind-the-scenes things that make a college tick, learning how the system was designed, learning how to tweak it through committees, quiet conversations, emails... how to get people behind a cause, how to build up momentum for a charge, how to change things and how to make them stay changed and alive.
C's and C-'s, a required class (Analog and Digital Communications) that I had to drop before I failed it (I finally passed it with a D my senior year). A few lone A's shining through a fog of near-D's for (1) easy required classes and (2) those I poured my heart and soul into - but you can't tell those apart on my transcript. Biology, a required course I probably would not have taken otherwise, was a solid C because I couldn't bring myself to take multiple-choice book quizzes with any reasonable degree of accuracy - but I begged to be allowed to do an alternative project and ended up delving into the brain chemistry of naps and sleep, and loved the class - which you would not know from my grade.
The string of solid C's continued through my senior year, but by this time I had already gotten hooked on learning. One A stands out in my memory; an independent study in anthropology that, on the paper, says nothing of the story behind it - how I struck up a conversation with a MIT researcher interviewing engineering students for a study, how she forwarded my questions to the researcher heading the project, how I drove to MIT and asked so many questions that the professor invited me to audit her qualitative research methods class the next semester - how my anthropology professor back at Olin quickly set up an independent study so that I could count that class for credit (at the end of term she called the MIT professor and wrote down the grade she was told I had gotten), and how I therefore spent several happy and mind-blowing hours each week as a little engineering undergraduate in the back of a room of ABD social science PhD students, sweating through dense papers that assumed a half-dozen prerequisite classes I had never had - what was sociology, anyway? and how my wide-eyed culture shock and naivete often drew appreciative chuckles from my older classmates who quickly set me straight.
But C's in almost everything else. B's, if that. The first digit of my GPA wobbled between 2 and 3 throughout my last few semesters. To top it off, I started getting into open source my senior year, and disappeared from campus once a week to go downtown and hack...
Professors I meet now sometimes say they would have loved to have me as a student. Students I meet now sometimes say I must have done so well in school. I guess what I'm trying to say is "maybe - but probably not for the reasons you'd expect, or in the ways you'd think." When I talk with my former classmates, they think I got fantastic grades. "You must have had a 3.8, or at least 3.6 or 3.5," one told me when I fretted that no grad school would take me with the GPA I had. She wouldn't believe me when I told her I was pretty much a straight-C student; I loved learning, I worked hard, and I wasn't out to defy authority. But it's there, on paper, and those letters mean a lot to me - but probably not the same thing that they mean to someone else.
When someone else looks at my transcript, they probably see a promising student who took a nosedive somewhere along the way. Slacked off, got distracted, finally was unable to deal with her ADHD, decided that she didn't care... any of the above. Struggled to graduate. Barely did. Whoops.
When I look at my transcript, this is the story I read; I see myself learning how to learn, learning how to make my own judgments that took into account feedback like grades, but were not solely dictated by them. I see myself falling in love with learning, doing, being hungry to make something happen; I see my teachers nurturing and encouraging that even when they couldn't give me points for it, I see four tough but transformative years. And I'm not emotionally attached to the letters, but I am emotionally attached to the stories behind them - and I can tell stories about each of them; my Computer Architecture lab team, the failed startup that was the most valuable lesson of our business class - sometimes the A's have the best stories, sometimes the C's do.
It will be interesting to see how I do in grad school.