During my first semester of college, I took a speech and debate class. One day the topic we debated was, “Is it fair for a teacher to grade on a curve?”

We had to pick sides. There was none of this, “Well, they both make good points.” The teacher gave us 15 minutes to pick a side and organize our arguments.

The yes side made the case that it is fair because it helps everyone. The example that was almost convincing was this: if the whole class bombs a test, then the teacher may say, “I want to raise everyone 25 points.” The debater explained that if you were a top performer and got a 75, you now have a 100. If you scored 45 then you are now at 70. The grades change, but first place is first and last is last.

I spoke for the no side and said it wasn’t fair. One person doesn’t go to the party, says no to fun, and studies. They do well. Another person goes out to the party, is disorganized, or forgets there is an exam and gets a failing grade. Didn’t they each earn their grade? Self-assured I ended with my confident flourish, “If you grade on a curve you are rewarding the wrong thing and you are trivializing hard work.”

Great class. Great topics.

The following year I decided to take the summer session of math because I didn’t want to endure it for a whole semester because I wanted to focus on my Greek translation class. The class ran from 8:00 am to noon, Monday through Friday. It was grueling.

On Monday, which was the first day of class, he assigned homework and it was so much it made you feel like he didn’t like you. Before dismissing us, he announced, “Your first exam is this Thursday.”

I ate my lunch quickly, went to the library and sat there for four-and-a-half hours and did homework. Letters and numbers touching. Parentheses everywhere. My eraser wore out before I got to the fourth problem. I ended the evening with one hour of review.

The next day the professor wrote a problem on the board and called me to solve it. I couldn’t. I drew a blank. It just doesn’t stick with me. It’s embarrassing. Why is this so hard for me?

Class is dismissed. I ate my lunch quickly and head to the library for five hours of homework and follow that later in the evening with an hour of review. The next day he writes a problem on the board and asks us to solve it on our own paper. I can’t. I’m drowning. It’s too much and too fast.

Test day rolled around and I had a bad feeling in my stomach as the professor handed out the test like Halloween candy. The room fell as silent as a graveyard. It took me two hours to finish that test. Some girl got out of there in 45 minutes and I didn’t know whether to be happy or sad for her. I was middle of the pack.

The next day we get the tests back and mine comes back looking like someone spilled Kool-Aid all over it. I see my grade in the upper right-hand corner and say to myself, “Why, that’s not even the speed limit on the road where I live.”

Never have I worked so hard and gotten such poor results. I’m frantic! This is just the beginning! We’ve got all summer and it’s going to get harder! Am I going to pass?

After handing the results back to us, the professor sat on the front of his desk facing us and said, “Folks, the average grade of this class on this test was 45%.” Lump in my throat. Other students hang their heads.

I raised my hand and asked, “Professor, you do grade on the curve, don’t you?”

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