“No Shame in a C,” by Allen Coyle

May 26th, 2010 | By | Category: Fake Nonfiction, Prose

Dear Greg,

I appreciate your e-mail protesting the C you received on your midterm exam. I know it must have taken a lot of courage to write me. (Of course, it would have taken even more courage to confront me in person, but whatever. Not everyone has gumption.)

I read your argument word for word. (Well, kind of. A lot of it was whiny, I’m-entitled-to-whatever-I-want blather, so you’ll forgive me if I skipped those parts.)

You made many good points, and I considered them carefully. You said the test was too broad in scope; that not enough time was allotted for completion; that some of the material wasn’t covered in class. You also claimed a C would wreck your GPA, and that your scholarship hinges on your academic performance.

Yes, good points, in all. I can assure you I pondered over them extensively, and after much debate — two minutes — I reached my conclusion:

The C will stand.

I know: you probably think I’m obtuse, obstinate and oblivious to your plight. But I think a lesson needs to be learned here. This is a teachable moment.

Greg, my young friend: there’s no shame in a C.

In college, as in life, only the best and brightest achieve excellence. You know these people: they’re the ones who become leaders, executives and professors. The world looks to them for guidance and wisdom.

And then you have the idiots, who fail miserably at everything. They’re the screw-ups; the ne’er-do-wells. The world looks to them to scrub toilets: a perfect metaphor for their existence.

The rest — the vast majority, and a category into which you fall — are average. They neither excel nor founder. They simply exist and lead ordinary, uneventful lives. The world looks to them for nothing, for they have nothing special to give.

As children, we’re coddled into adulthood. We’re told we can be anything we want — even the president of the United States. But of course, it isn’t true. Limitations are imposed on us — not by outside circumstances, but rather by ourselves.

Allow me to rephrase: Some people lack the brains, the strength and the ambition to excel in this world.

What no one’s told you, Greg, is that you’re average. Your midterm score reflects that. I’ve seen many students like you over the years: students who are blissfully unaware of their own shortcomings; students who still believe in the childhood notion that the world is theirs, if only they work hard enough.

The sad truth is, no matter how hard you work, you’ll always be ordinary. It’s in your nature. After all, you’re a C student.

I offer a quick glimpse of your future:

You’ll survive my course. Your final grade, most likely, will be a C. You’ll go on to graduate with a 2.5 GPA. You’ll enter the world and confront its seemingly endless landscape.

You’ll have ambitious career goals, but they won’t work out. You’ll have to live in your parents’ basement until you find some sort of job, which you will, eventually. You won’t like it, but you’ll take it. And you’ll try to convince yourself that it’s only temporary, that you’ll move on as soon as another opportunity presents itself.

It never will.

So you’ll keep on working. You’ll try to climb the corporate ladder, but you’ll hit a ceiling. You’ll stagnate in your position, but it’ll be all you have.

At some point you’ll meet a woman — she won’t be the love of your life, but she’ll do — and you’ll buy a medium-sized house in a medium-sized neighborhood. You’ll drive a medium-sized car. You’ll probably be earning a median wage.

And then you’ll have children.

You’ll have big dreams for them. You’ll imagine their futures as bright and unlimited, filled with success and happiness. No one, you’ll think, ever could be as special or as gifted as your children.

But then they’ll mature, and you’ll see they’re not so special. They’ll bring home disappointing report cards. They’ll be accepted to mediocre colleges.

And you’ll watch in dismay as they forge a life not of unparalleled success, but rather of bland mediocrity: the very life you accepted for yourself and wanted so much for them to avoid.

Do you see what I’m saying, Greg? Your midterm C isn’t a reflection of your academic performance — it’s a reflection of your very existence.

Sure, I could inflate your grade, but what would be the point? You can dress a peasant in silk: he won’t become wealthy. You can give a hag makeup: she won’t become beautiful. You can give a toilet-scrubber a book: he won’t become smarter.

My goal here isn’t to make you bitter, or depressed. My goal is to make you come to terms with yourself.

There’s no shame in being average. Indeed, without everyday, ordinary people, how would the world survive?

Think of the world as an anthill. Of all the ants, there’s only one standout: the queen. The rest are workers. They’re all the same, more or less: they’re all average. Yet without the workers, how would the queen survive?

Does that make you feel better?

So, yes, Greg: the C will stand. And with your grade, I hope you embrace your place in life. You and millions like you play a vital role in our world. Cherish your role — savor it, even. But never, ever be ashamed of it. Every anthill needs its workers, after all.

My goal in life always has been to educate young minds. I hope I have done that here.


Professor Harold L. Dawson, III, Ph.D.


My best wishes for a successful future. Hah! Just kidding. Seriously though, if you want extra credit, see me after class. I can give you a C+ if you’ll scrub my toilet.


Allen Coyle is a freelance writer living in Reno. His dream is to patent the world’s first time machine and travel one minute into the future, so he’ll always be one step ahead of himself.

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