On Being One of Them

photo of a university garden gate
The gatekeeper is out of sight

Late last night, I sent the email to the student who had hoped to change the grade in the class that was over in June. No, there is no good way to do this, I finally said. No, I can’t.

Which is true. But not simply true. “The faculty member always has some discretion.” That means power. I could have said “you could make up the work you didn’t do during the semester, and turn it in, and I could grade it, and if it were satisfactory, I could add it to your grade and then it wouldn’t be an F, it could be something else, it could be a D.” I could have said “you could revise the papers you wrote that I said you could revise back in May, you could take those comments I made seriously, you could raise the grade you got on those assignments, and then it could be something else, possibly almost a C.”

That would be “ill-advised.” The other students in the class who did not get the grades they wanted during the semester would have every right to say, “What about me? Where’s my second chance?” They wouldn’t, because they wouldn’t even know about it. But they would have every right. This would be “special treatment,” and they would have been denied it.

But “we are all special,” as Dorothy Allison says, and sometimes special treatment is righteous. I don’t know all the circumstances. Something put this student into failure mode. What if it was the complex burden borne by students who feel they are not entitled to college education, who are here by luck or fluke, who are unwelcome? Financial aid is at stake. What if special treatment is the difference between the door staying open and the door closing for good?

“One class is never the reason a student loses financial aid.” I understand that. But someone’s class is always the last straw.

I thought: there isn’t time to make a difference in financial aid for fall. I thought: the prognosis, based on my experience with make-up work, is grim. I thought: how could I justify revised work, when the purpose of these assignments is long past? But I also thought: what if this amounts to throwing the student out of the lifeboat? I thought: perfectly reasonable and acceptable thinking still reproduces the structures of privilege and disprivilege that may be involved in this crisis in the first place. I thought: this might be wrong.

Late last night, I finally sent the email that said I wouldn’t do what the student had not quite asked me to do. That was true. But it wasn’t simply true.

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