Wayne Scott, AB’86, AM’89, knows from painful experience that an A is not a scarlet letter around here—an F is.
The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers,—stern and wild ones,—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss. —Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
Two weeks before I was scheduled to graduate in 1986, I received the first failing grade of my academic career. This indignity was not simple. It was layered with cruel absurdities.
To begin with: the name of the class. The Animal Kingdom. Why not Molecular Immunology? Host Pathogen Interactions? Computational Approaches to Cognitive Neuroscience? Couldn’t one word in the title have been esoteric? Or at least unpronounceable?
The Animal Kingdom was a Core class in the Biological Sciences. Most students finished it their first or second year. In fact I had taken this same class, its name reminiscent of a nursery picture book, two previous quarters and both times had withdrawn in a perfectionist panic when it became clear I was doing poorly.
When I took it that spring of my senior year—my last chance to pass—I didn’t receive just any failing grade. I scored a 59. A sliver shy of a D. I was Tantalus, mired in the mud of his failings, the promise of a D—stinky and rotten, yes, but still desirable compared to the alternative—just out of reach. When the white-haired, bespectacled professor handed me the exam with what I believed was a smirk, I got that nausea and vertigo one gets when tumbling through the sky in dreams. I had to remind myself to breathe.
Struggling to maintain my composure in front of my classmates, most of whom were giddy freshmen, far from the woes of the adult world I had just entered, I clenched the final exam paper and staggered off. When I got to my dormitory, I could not control my shaking.
The cap and gown were ordered. My family had purchased airline tickets and made hotel reservations. A few congratulatory cards and checks had even come in the mail. Planning to walk together, my friends talked as if our ship would soon dock in a glamorous port. I alone knew that I had fallen into the waves, far from our collective destination. I didn’t tell any of them.
That sunshiny, green spring of my fourth year, I was haunted by a letter.
Mustering my courage, I visited the professor to haggle for my future.
He was in his laboratory. He was wearing thick glasses and didn’t look up from the table where he was working when he told me to enter. The light behind him was glaring and yellow. In his hand he had an instrument that looked like tweezers. Before him were two trays of fruit flies.
I can’t say exactly what he was doing with those flies. (After all, I had failed his damn class.) But this is what I believe. One at a time he was methodically picking up each Drosophila, plucking off its gonads, and dropping it in the other tray. Pick up, pluck, drop. Pick up, pluck, drop. A conveyor belt of castration.
Imagine the quivering treble of Dickens’s Oliver when he asks the workhouse master for more gruel. “Is there any chance, Professor, that I could get one more point on this exam? Perhaps do some extra credit?”
Silence. Pick up, pluck, drop.
“I’m set to graduate this spring. But I can’t if I don’t pass your class.”
He didn’t look up from his work. “That is the grade you earned, and, in fact, I have already been generous.” Pick up, pluck, drop. “It would seem to me you need to make an alternative plan.”
I had two alternative plans. The first was to panic. Near tears, I raced across the quadrangles, which were bursting with green and filled with sunshine and the laughter of students. The second was to lock myself in my room, close the curtains, and mope in the shadows. Friends called and I didn’t answer. I couldn’t stand to be around smart people who were graduating. I was defined by failure. And I didn’t belong anymore.
Finally, prodded by my brother, I sought my academic adviser. Nodding, she listened to my story. She made no promises but offered to consult a committee on academic requirements, which would look at my whole record and decide my fate. My scarlet letter hung over me.
A quarter century has passed since this episode. I’ve had time to develop theories about why I failed The Animal Kingdom. First of all, I was stubborn, with more than a dash of hubris. My barely postadolescent mind refused to flex into uninteresting topics. I hated memorization. Taxonomic ranks? Exoskeleton or endoskeleton? I didn’t care. I preferred to stay up past midnight, curled in a window chair in Regenstein Library, puzzling over the Romantic poets.
Second, I suspect that, unconsciously, I didn’t want to leave my undergraduate haven: the warm community of friends and teachers and mentors; the familiarity of libraries and coffee shops and campus strolls; each quarter’s giddy anticipation of new books to read and discuss. Where was I going to go now? What was I going to do?
After three days, my graduation date looming tenuously, my adviser called. “Your record shows you’ve done well in all other respects. We’re going to waive the requirement that you pass this quarter of your biology sequence to graduate. But there is one condition,” she said, with what seemed like terrible gravity. “The F will remain on your transcript.”
“That’s your only option, if you want to graduate this spring.”
For a while I was devastated. I was tattooed with failure. But I walked with my friends, I got my diploma, and I could not suppress my smile. For years afterward, applying to graduate schools or for jobs, I braced myself for questions about my scarlet F. I wanted someone to be mortified, or at the very least disdainful. How could you do that? How do you explain yourself? Ironically, over time, part of me even wanted to tell the story, to move beyond the stuckness of that defining moment. The questions never came.
Now I have three school-aged children who ask, “Tell the story about the bugs’ gonads!” The story of my scarlet F is now part of our family lore. Pick up, pluck, drop.
My last theory about why I didn’t pass The Animal Kingdom—perhaps more of an epiphany—is that I needed to see that I could fail. Utterly and completely fall on my face. Stand alone in my self-imposed shame and exile. And survive and even do well in the world and claim a place in the human tribe. To me it is one of the most powerful gifts I received from my teachers and advisers, an interesting story I actually love to tell.
Wayne Scott, AB’86, AM’89, is a writer and teacher in Portland, Oregon. This essay is dedicated to the memories of Dean Katie Nash and Professor Lynn Throckmorton.