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Saved by a C

Recalling a professor’s act of generosity. By Rick Selvin


Three Cs, a D, and an F.

The form letter announcing those embarrassing grades arrived at my parents’ house in an official Penn envelope on official Penn stationery. Two other words shot out from the page: Academic Probation.

Illustration by Regan Dunnick

This was not the report Mom and Dad had expected. “Is this what we’re paying almost four thousand dollars a year for?” they asked me on that stressful day.

It was June 1963, the end of the second semester of my freshman year, in the days when parents still received grade notification.

I had gotten what I deserved. The F was because I simply had stopped going to calculus. I knew by the end of the first month there was no way I was going to pass that course. No way I could ever figure out the rate of acceleration of a jet plane and other such mathematical nonsense.

I figured some of the other grades would be high enough to keep me afloat, but it didn’t happen. The D was in Latin, a course I thought I’d breeze through after three years of it in high school. But I never really got the hang of a language in which the verb is put smack at the end of a sentence. I wanted verbs to be at the beginning, where they warned you early on about a speaker’s intent.

In fact, that was my theory about why Rome fell. How could a civilization survive when its people didn’t know until it was too late if the guy you were talking to was going to complete his thought with kiss or kill?

You could be chatting with some stranger on one of those countless roads leading to Rome and think the bloke was being friendly and suddenly the word kill pops up and you don’t have a chance to run away. At least in English, a chap will say, “I’m gonna kill you because you stole my favorite toga,” giving you seven words’ advance notice to scram.

So the word-order thing is what messed me up in Latin.

But I’m not making excuses. The truth is, I did not have my college priorities in order. I was interested in two things, the girl I was dating and the three music organizations I was in: a rock band, a jazz combo, and a bluegrass group. Every spare moment was spent either making music or making beautiful music, wink-wink.

The letter to my parents said I would have to meet certain academic standards in the first semester of my sophomore year to avoid the boot. To be removed from probation, it said, I could get no grade lower than a C. Even if I got an A in four courses, if my fifth grade was a D, I’d be out. Needless to say, I returned to Penn in the fall of 1964 filled with a strong desire to just barely pass.

As the new semester came to an end, that’s what it appeared I had done in four of my courses. They were, as we said in those days, easy Cs. The fifth C was not so certain.

The iffy grade was in a course on Eastern religions, a survey taught by a dignified man who wore a clerical collar. I had about a 75 average in his class and figured even if I got a 65 on the final I’d be safe. I hadn’t missed a lecture and felt pretty confident.

I arrived at the appointed hour, picked up two blue books at the front of the classroom and reached out as the priest dispensed copies of the examination. To this day, I’m not sure exactly what the questions were. I read through them once, twice, a third time, looking for familiar words. Just a noun or two that I could BS on for a
couple of pages. But they simply weren’t there. It was like that student nightmare where you’re in a strange room taking an exam in a course you’ve never attended.

Where had this guy come up with these questions? Certainly not from any lecture I had attended.

And then it struck me. They must have come from the textbook! How unfair! The book! I recalled having looked at the volume a few times—at beautiful pictures of the Buddha and crucifixes and Jewish stars. But to base the exam on just the text?

Droplets of perspiration formed a constellation of small, dark spots on the cover of the first blank booklet. I read the instructions again at the top of the test: “Answer any three of these five questions. Be as specific as you can.”

My head was spinning. A year-and-a-half of college passed before me in seconds. All I could see were students sitting around calculating the rate of acceleration of jet planes and translating long passages of Cicero.

I started writing. I worked random words into my sentences, words I recalled from the lectures but which had, I feared, no real relevance to the questions at hand. Maybe a few of them would “take.” Maybe the priest, after correcting 35 other tests, would get brain lock and simply scan for certain phrases.

Ninety minutes later I handed in two blue books filled with religious drivel. I felt beaten and depressed and knew there was nothing I could do during a crisis like this but play pinball. Before I left, I asked, “Do you know when you’ll have these graded?”

The priest said he was going to his office right away to work on them. I couldn’t believe what I said next.

“Would you mind if I came up this afternoon and got the results? I’m a little nervous, see, ’cause I’m on academic probation and I need a C in your course to stay at Penn.”

He seemed a little surprised at this case of unabashed begging. He scanned my face for cues of sincerity. I guess the sweat on my forehead convinced him I wasn’t kidding.

“What’s your name?”

I told him.

“Come up to my office in two hours.”

I spent the time playing “Sailor Boy,” my favorite pinball game, at the Dirty Drug at 34th Street. Then, still wet with nervous perspiration, I walked to his office and knocked on the door.

“Come,” he said.

Tentatively, I entered. “It’s me,” I said. “The guy who needed the C.”

“Yes, I know,” he said. “I have your exam right here.”

He paused and looked at me again. I tried to gush worthiness.

“Tell me,” he said, “what grade do you need on this test to get a C in the course?

“A 65,” I said, avoiding his eyes.

“Hmm.” He looked at my exam. “Come back in a half-hour,” he said. “I’ll go through it again and look for some more points.”

My eyes widened. Look for more points? “OK,” was all I could say.

I spent another nervous 25 minutes throwing nickels into “Sailor Boy” and then skulked back to his office.

The door was open a crack and I could see him shaking his head over two blue books I was sure were mine.

“Sir?” I said.

“Oh, come in,” he said. “You got a … 65.”

He smiled. I broke down like the ladies do on those daytime television shows that grant wishes of families whose houses have been destroyed by tornadoes.

He had saved my academic life. And I knew it was a gift. I knew I hadn’t really scored even close to a 65 on that test.

“Thank you,” I said between embarrassing sobs. “Thank you. I guess there is a God,” I blurted without thinking. He nodded and smiled, as if maybe I had gotten something out of his course after all.

Rick Selvin C’66 is a writer who lives in University City. He adds, “I tried to remember that wonderful professor’s name, but the fog of years was too thick. A check of old catalogs failed. I did, however, find two people— the Rev. Stanley E. Johnson, who served for more than 30 years as Penn’s chaplain, and Marie Hudson of the religious-studies department—who both suggested it was Dr. Robert Evans, now deceased. I believe that is the correct name. If you are reading this and have never thanked a teacher whose inspiration or generosity changed your life for the better, perhaps it is time to do so.”

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