Making the grade

Well, folks, it’s official. Last night, I had my first grades-anxiety-dream of law school.

I suppose it’s about time, really. Grades for the first semester come out tomorrow, so really I’m surprised I held on to undisturbed slumber for this long.

Harvard Law School recently moved to what is essentially a pass-fail system, although the technical distinction between High Pass, Pass, and Low Pass makes the whole thing look suspiciously like the good old A-B-C’s. Supposedly the intended implication of the shift was that everyone who got into the school was already an A student, making finer distinctions unnecessary. And perhaps it has worked to relax the competition somewhat; I get the feeling that most of my friends would be satisfied with anything but the infamous “LP”, and the same goes for me. For the record, everyone in my section is brilliant, and because of grading quotas, not everyone will get the high marks they deserve.

The funny thing, though, is that my dream was not about getting bad grades.

Rather, it was about being unable to read my own transcript.

In my dream, the transcript arrived on time but was so incredibly complex that I just couldn’t figure out what it meant. Each class corresponded with a code; I had to find the code on another part of the transcript and then flip to the back side to read the grade that corresponded with that code. However, the corresponding grade wasn’t itself a grade, but only a number, and I had to flip back to the front of the transcript to locate this number on a bell curve and then calculate my actual grade based on its position on the graph along with some sort of equation. After struggling for what (in my dream) seemed like twenty minutes just for one grade, I finally gave up.

It would be cliché to say that I woke up in a cold sweat, but I was certainly very anxious for the rest of the morning. Truth be told, up to this point I hadn’t actually given that much thought to grades—or at least I thought I hadn’t. I would love for some psychologist out there to tell me what this all means…

See, my general approach has been to work hard and learn the material for the purpose of learning it, not for the sake of some grade on a test. It’s not that I think grades are meaningless, but you either pass or you don’t, and I think you can’t fail if you work hard and cultivate an interest in your work. I don’t plan to sit on the Supreme Court or even take the Law Review by storm, and for students coming from pass-fail schools with good reputations, most law firms just check to see that you passed more than you failed—something I’m fairly confident I can do.

So why the dream?

It could be some lingering math anxiety left over from high school. I don’t think I’ve done any math since then (there’s a reason I went to law school), though I do still sometimes have a bit of a panicky moment when the restaurant check arrives. It could be employment-related, since several firms are waiting for my grades and I currently have nothing to tell them. Or it could be that, deep down, I’m really much more worried about my performance than I previously thought possible.

Frankly, though, I think that one night’s bad dream is about all the anxiety I want to devote to academic performance from here on out. “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” These are words of wisdom for us all, whether or not you happen to believe in the One who said them. The grades I’ll be receiving tomorrow are for work that was already done a month ago, so there’s certainly nothing I can do about it now. And if I’m worried about any outcome that might result from these grades, I’ll just have to remind myself that grades are only minimally capable of capturing the force of one’s work ethic or the inquisitiveness of one’s mind.

Life is full of moments in which our performance is evaluated. Sometimes we pass with flying colors; sometimes we fall short. And even if no one else is judging us, we’re almost always judging ourselves. After a dream like mine, though, I need to remind myself of something I always say to encourage my friends:

“Nothing on that piece of paper tells you anything about who you are. It might tell you how good your memory was at a particular time on a particular day, or it might tell you what kind of mood the professor was in when she was reading your essay. But it doesn’t necessarily tell you how intelligent you are, or how hard you worked, or even how much you know. Only you know any of those things; anyone else evaluating you is simply taking their best guess at those answers based on what you wrote. You are so much more than a number—or at least you will be as long as you remember that that’s true.”

So let the grades come. I’m ready.

And just in case my dream comes true, I’ll have a calculator ready, too.

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