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That bad grade in Chemistry

It was a rainy Sunday afternoon when my father knocked on our door. He handed me a sheet of test scores from Mrs. Dougherty’s fourth-grade class, a dog’s license we had apparently never attached to her collar, and a report card from my first semester of college.

Now, I was never a summa cum laude student. But looking at this report card from 28 years ago was truly humbling. Because there in large bold print was a C from my chemistry class.

I remember signing up for that course. Chemistry in high school had been fun, but the college class was intensely rigorous. From the start of the semester, the professor was open with us that he was trying to weed out those who weren’t strong enough for the pre-med track. I just wanted to fulfill my science requirement—and enjoy a little chemistry along the way. I’ve never wanted to be a doctor. I was doomed before I started.

Still, I threw myself into that class. I studied harder for that C than I had ever worked for a grade before. I wasn’t going to give any professor the satisfaction of scaring me away from a class.

All I earned was a C. But I was relieved to get it, if not incredibly proud. And never, not even once, has anyone asked me in an interview or a professional setting, “I see you got a C in chemistry during your first semester of college. Could you explain that?”

I sort of wish they would. Because that experience pointed me away from chemistry and back toward the humanities, where I feel much more at home. That class taught me more than many classes because it helped me find my path. I ended up taking classes that I enjoyed and majored in English and Latin, admiring the sciences from a healthy distance.

Although we should stretch ourselves and take on challenges, it’s also true that we often excel at things we enjoy. God gives us talents and passions, and—ideally—we find some that intersect and become part of a fruitful life. Then we can throw ourselves into endeavors with excitement and joy, ready to grow and learn and discover something new along the way.

For me, studying Latin was difficult, but it was like figuring out a puzzle, where the picture would come clearer and clearer as I worked, words becoming images, images transforming into stories, stories giving me a glimpse into another world and time. Taking Chemistry was like doing an unsolvable Rubik’s cube or pushing a rolling test tube up the hill again and again the way Sisyphus did with that rock.

My children were appalled when they saw my report card, which wasn’t all that stellar even if you eliminated the chemistry grade. That was not my finest semester of college, at least not academically. When I called my mother to thank her for sending it over, she said, “Your father gave that to you? I never remembered your grades being that bad. I was going to throw that away.”

After all, a mother’s memories always contain the truth—or at least a better version of the story.

But I’m grateful for that C.

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