A Weekly Column
Joseph Walker


Not too long ago my friend – we’ll call her Geri – finished taking her final college exams. She’s earned her degree one or two classes at a time. Her grandchildren are very proud.

That’s right – grandchildren. Geri is 61.

“I may be the only graduate who has to use a cane to walk across the stage to get my diploma,” said Geri, who, if the truth is told, is probably further away from using a cane than I am. “But I am going to get it. Finally.”

And if you think that sounds as though Geri just scarped by in her college studies, think again. Her college transcript looks like a “Sesame Street” lesson on the letter “A.” That’s why she was so surprised when her instructor told her how she had done on her last final exam.

“Twenty out of 75.”

Geri was stunned. She couldn’t remember ever missing 10 questions on a test, much less 20. “I can’t believe I missed 20 questions,” she said.

“You didn’t miss 20 questions,” the teacher said. “You got 20 out of 75 correct.”

Geri was speechless. She had never performed that poorly on a test, and she knew that she was well-prepared for this one. She looked at her professor, numb and dazed.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I think I know what happened.”

He pulled out her test paper, which was one of those computer-scanning, fill-in-the-little-circle-with-a-number-two-pencil jobs – you know, the kind where it takes longer to log in your name than it does to fill out the entire test.

“You see,” the professor continued, “you got the first 20 question right, and then right over here . . .” He pointed to a place on the test form “. . . it looks like you skipped a row. From what I can tell, it looks like you got the right answers, you just put them in the wrong places.”

“So what does that mean?” Geri asked as thoughts of one more semester to re-take a failed class flashed in her mind.

“It means that, technically, you failed the test,” the professor said. “But I’ve been looking at your previous work, which has been excellent. There is no reason to believe that you would be any less prepared for your final than you’ve been for every other test and assignment, so as far as I’m concerned…” He took out a red pen and wrote a big “A” on the page.

So Geri graduated because her track record made it possible for her teacher to give her the benefit of the doubt. But what if she hadn’t had that kind of track record? What if her college career – especially her experience with that teacher – had been riddled with mediocre effort and a litany of excuses? My guess is her final test score would have reflected that history, regardless of how accidental her final mistake may have been.

And that makes me wonder how I’m doing, track record-wise. I mean, stuff like that happens. We give our best effort to Something Very Important – a project, an assignment or maybe even a relationship – only to find that a simple mistake or misunderstanding somewhere along the way has undermined our success and made our best effort look bad. We get on the wrong line, we take a wrong turn, we mark the wrong box, we push the wrong button and all of a sudden we’re feeling like Geri: stunned, speechless and confused.

Technically, like a failure.

But it seems to me that if we’ve established a personal history of integrity, honesty, hard work and fair play people will tend to give us the benefit of the doubt when we occasionally fall humanly short of perfection. We may not always end up with an “A” as Geri did, but at least we won’t feel so much like a failure.

Technically or otherwise.

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— © Joseph Walker

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