The lazy, procrastination-prone, intelligent-enough teenager discovers early that Bs are an excellent way to get square-ass parents off your case. A C+ or lower will land you in long, depressing conversations in which the word "disappointed" is wielded like a switch-blade. Nietzsche said that guilt is a horrible thing which "a Real Man crushes beneath his boot-heel." That's a fake quote though he did say words to that effect somewhere, but I would not get the warning until the second semester of my senior year in college. Too late for me. Guilt was a motivator throughout my teenage years, and rather than crush it I used it as fuel.
This went on until roughly my sophomore year in high school. The previous year I picked up a couple Ds and many tedious conversations--and not just with parents. This time, a creepy and incompetent guidance counselor was added to the mix. I finally decided this was no way to live. I also discovered, at 14, that I actually liked books.
So I studied harder than I ever had and found I had a slight knack for it. (Lucky for me sophomore year was when we studied geometry, that most humanistic of maths. Had it been trigonometry I may have given up entirely.) I started taking classics out of the library for fun, conveniently enough from a section of the Beverly Branch of the Chicago Public Library labeled "CLASSICS." Not only did I take Latin, I also took Homeric Greek in place of a study period.
For all that effort, I mainly got a bunch of Bs, and my GPA only moderately improved. Now I was disappointed. As teens tend to do, I embraced the idea that the real grade was in here [taps chest], not on a report card crafted by some square-ass teacher. But, despite not clocking a 4.0 and despite my frustration, I also noticed that those long, sad conversations with my parents came to a sudden halt. So I kept up my efforts, Bs and all.
I was pleased with this state of affairs, and with myself, until somewhere in my late 20s when, considering graduate school for the first time, I learned about something called "grade inflation." It works like this: in Ivy League schools, nerds are such a menace that professors are afraid to give them Bs, and so the average GPAs there are something like 3.7 out of 4. As a result, everyone else who is not a total asshole about a decent-enough grade is rendered an idiot. This applies even if you went to a non-Ivy League school, like I did. Since I was completely unaware that grade inflation was a thing, I left college thinking my 3.02 GPA meant I was as smart as a bag of calculators but cool enough to have a social life.
So I cursed my laziness and my half-assed attitude for about a decade, especially when I thought about some precious grad school and their stupid standards. But then a more dreadful thought-- I mean that literally, as in "filled with dread"--descended upon me: maybe I wasn't lazy. Maybe I earned that B! Which would mean that the reason I initially misspelled idiopathic above is that I am not that smart. Is "idiopathic disease" a tautology? Should it be idiopathy? And are flowers really 150 million years old? Where the hell did I read that? What about Nietzsche and that stuff about guilt? How did he say it works? Don't ask me. I put the B in Übermensch. (It's actually worse than that since I got a C in Existentialism.) What I am trying to say in my almost-but-not-quite-excellent style is that I feel bright enough to get it but not smart enough to say it.
This fairly recent epiphany has caused me a bit of an identity crisis. It has, in fact, caused me some disgrace. And hence this autobiographical blog post. "Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful," George Orwell wrote in one of his classic leads. "A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats." I am here to attest that that is how a B feels. Like a defeat. This is true even if you have not yet heard the term "grade inflation." When you write a 15-page essay on Faulkner, a man you admire more than is healthy, yet receive a B for the effort, it is hard not to feel that as an indictment of your very sense of self. Here you are, man of letters, aspiring writer, humanist in the line of Petrach, and you can't even say what Addie's deal is in "As I Lay Dying"! It's a disappointment you feel in your very soul.
ENOUGH. I hereby resolve to embrace my B-ness. I will opine on things for which I am semi-qualified without guilt. I will crush beneath by boot-heal any sense of restraint that stands between me and bloviating. I will re-embrace the delusions of grandeur that once inspired me to take ancient Greek in the first place. I will mansplain to other men. I will encourage as many readers as possible to read my work and say, as so many teachers and professors did so many years ago, "Yeah, but..." And I will only kind of care. At least, until my next crippling epiphany--due next week.