The Pursuit of Excellence

Cabbages and Kings

Overheard two fellows talking at breakfast this morning.

"I don't know..." said one, "I don't think I'll get an A, but maybe a B, or a B plus... If I get a C..."

"Yeah ... I got an A minus in Soc Sci 135, but I don't know ... that was just lucky... I figure that if I get a B ..."

They went on like this for fifteen minutes, each talking about his own grades, but neither listening, like two radios facing each other tuned to different stations. I guess they just liked the feel of the letters in their mouths: "A ... B ... C ..."

Ran across an article by Dean Ford in the Common Room, in a book called Examining in Harvard College. "At its best, the final examination both permits and requires the student to start using what he has learned in a given course by thinking and talking about it in the way we hope he will continue to think and talk about it for the rest of his life," says Ford. I am being both permitted and required to take my Soc Sci exam this Friday so I've been only half-awake all day. (Almost run over on Quincy Street by delicate clubby on big motorcycle.) (An exam is like the grace of God; you can take or leave it--but you'd better take it.) The conversation I heard at breakfast and Dean Ford's remark kept running through my head. "A...C plus...for the rest of his life...B minus...A minus..."

Went up to Lamont fifth level to study, feeling a strange, ominous foreboding. Fluorescent lights droning like insects on a summer afternoon, my head bowed slowly into my book, and I fell into a dream-troubled torpor.

In my dream, I'm walking up to Boylston St. to the Square. Students rush past me carrying hammers, wire and nails. I get to the Square and see that they are constructing a gigantic monument on top of the MBTA station. All at once, the swarm of student workmen scrambles down. Suddenly the monument begins to revolve, and I perceive that it is a huge, flashing, revolving, three-story, red neon "A", A CRIMSON extra is thrust into my hands. I read half-way down; "The students said that they had constructed the A to show their love of and appreciation of excellent grades. The Faculty has also voted unanimously in praise of the new A. 'This is wonderful,' said a reliable Faculty source. 'You can talk all day about vague intangibles such as "learning," but this a real world. You've got to deliver the goods.' The Administration has announced its intention of hiring the ad agency of Smith & Green to promote good grades among students."

On a pocket radio next to me I hear a Mozart symphony on WHRB's Mozart Orgy. Abruptly it is cut off by a low male voice that says, "You want the big tall A. You'll enjoy the deep down satisfaction ..." A Radcliffe girl bounces up to me, her face flashing red on and off with the A-sign. "Hey," she gaily cries, "coming to the Glee Club concert in the Yard?" I see that she is wearing a huge button. It says, "I'm out for honors--are you?" All the way up Mass. Ave. there are posters that say, "An A a day keeps the Dean away!"

In the Yard, the Glee Club is singing Bach's Mass in B Minus. I become aware of a faint pulsing rhythm out of time with the music. El Forbes continues to conduct, but the pulse grows louder, more intense--it is obviously the sound of marching feet and many hoarse voices shouting. Suddenly a flank of students rounds the corner of Widener. I can hear their chant now as they bust through the lines of the Glee Club, and enter Widener:

"A, si!"

"C, no!"

The scene changes again, and I'm at the football stadium. A game is in progress, but everyone in the stands seems to be reading. Interception by Harvard! Carried to the Yale three yard line! The cheerleaders lift their megaphones.

"Gimme an H!" shout the cheerleaders.

Silence from the crowd.

"Gimme an A!" shout the cheerleaders.