January 13, 2009
I Feel Your Pain-Well, Now I Do....
My son's goldfish, Max, died yesterday. Ben never seemed all that interested in him after the first few days and we were happy that we got our 13 cents worth of finny fun from him in that time alone. Max was with us for about 6 weeks, but yesterday he was floating sideways in his little tank and was disposed of with all the pomp and flushing such an event requires. But we didn't tell Ben last night and we didn't really think he would notice. We were wrong. This morning he came running into our room, "where's Max?" Well, um, we stuttered, Max was sick and he couldn't swim anymore, but we can go to the pet store and get a new Max over the weekend. Well, that was the wrong answer. "I want the real Max back. I don't want another Max; if I get another fish, he will have to have a new name because he will not be the real Max." Then the tears--big, tragic, three-year-old tears--he was really and truly heartbroken. We were surprised and a little ashamed that we assumed, wrongly, it wouldn't have much of an impact on him.
The first years here got (most of) their grades on Friday. And I have seen my share of big, tragic, 22-25 year-old tears. I was a little baffled when I realized that some of these students were crying about B's. We have a B- grading curve here, so B's are actually considered above the pack-certainly not the kind of grades that will get you into academic hot water later on.
I was as tempted to be dismissive of the students' angst over these grades as I was over the death of the 13 cent fish, but I realized that I had to take a step back and really listen to these students before I decided that they were being overly histrionic. Some of these students have always been A students in prior educational settings; some have scholarships that are contingent on a certain GPA. Either way, they have always defined themselves as smart, "good student" types. To these students, a B can really shake the foundation of their self-definition--their very being.
We in Academic Support know that somewhere in the first year of law school, a student can get separated from the person they were--and the goals that they had--before they came to law school. Grades that are unexpectedly bad (even if not objectively bad) can sometimes be the nail in the coffin of a student's prior persona. This is scary stuff, especially when students are looking at two and half more years of school.
I find that reminding students to keep the grades in perspective helps. Students need to know that while the grades are important (I can't tell them that the grades are not important, would you trust me if I did?); they are only important in their context and no other. Your law school grades are not indicative of your worth as: a person, a son, a daughter, a husband, a wife, a parent or even a fish owner. You will most likely go on, not only to finish law school successfully, but to be a good lawyer. Your grades are only indicative of how well you were able to communicate your skills in a particular area of law, to one professor, in a two to three hour period, on one day.
This is not to say that I don't offer advice and guidance on how to do it better next time-mere comfort without future planning is an incomplete response to these issues. I do a post-mortem with students on the exams that includes asking: how did you study? with whom? how did you feel the morning (or evening) of the exam? how did you spend your time during the exam? did you run out of time? and most importantly, have you spoken with your professor? I offer appointments throughout the semester at regular intervals and exercises that can be done now to help get ready for spring exams. And above all, I offer tissues and chocolate.
In the end, my response needs to be the same for any student who is disappointed or even shocked by their midterm grades. Even if those grades will not effect their academic standing down the road, a student's human standing is just as important.
As for Max, may he float in peace. (ezs)
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