Failing Grace

Grace was failing.

We were near the semester’s halfway mark, and Grace still hadn’t passed a single reading quiz. She had perfect attendance, and was always eager to contribute to group discussions. She was also one of the most positive students I’d ever had in class – one of those people who seem to slosh through life, unable to keep their optimism from spilling over onto anyone they come into contact with. Yet when it came to plugging miniature ovals via no. 2 pencil, Grace never seemed to know the correct answer. And so here she was: sitting in my office, seven weeks into the semester. Failing.

This all happened some time ago, and I couldn’t have possibly foreseen the lasting impression this brief encounter would have on me. So, I don’t remember exactly how our conversation began. Instead, my recollection starts with me imparting sage and sophic words of wisdom – which Grace so clearly needed to hear – about her need to take more initiative and show more responsibility. “After all, you’re in college now,” I explained stoically, while leaning back in my chair and stroking the whisker on my chin for dramatic effect. “It’s up to you to complete the readings on time and to come to class prepared.”

Grace nodded politely in agreement, sucking on her front tooth.

This went on for a while, back and forth, my whisker doling out wisdom and her tooth nodding politely, until Grace eventually broke her silence to reveal why she kept failing her reading quizzes: she still hadn’t purchased the required textbook for class.

I took a long draw of air, as if inhaling a cigar that wasn’t there, and then began to double down on my previous advice – which Grace clearly needed to hear now more than ever – about taking initiative and showing responsibility. “After all, the textbook is required for a reason,” my whisker explained. “You have to buy your books if you expect to do well in college.”

Grace nodded politely in agreement, still sucking on that front tooth.

This went on for a bit longer, the wisdom and the nodding, the whisker and the tooth, until Grace finally broke her silence once again to reveal why she hadn’t purchased her book. I’m not sure what took her so long to tell me. Yet on the other hand, I’m also not sure why she ever decided to tell me at all. Perhaps she finally stirred up enough courage inside of herself, or perhaps she finally felt comfortable enough around me.

Regardless of why, I remember staring at the crown of Grace’s head as she eyed a stretch of speckled gray carpet between her Converse All Stars, reminiscing aloud about how she hadn’t gotten a good night’s sleep all week because, as she put it, “The cops keep knocking on my windshield, asking me to move my car.”

I nodded politely in stupefaction, embarrassment gushing out of me like a Play-Doh Fun Factory.

Her words seemed to echo through my office, ricocheting off that same speckled gray carpet in the form of spoken bullets. Reality suddenly stared me in the face. I saw “The Sign,” in much the way Ace of Base must have circa 1995, and in that moment I had a rare glimpse of utter clarity, as if gleaning a gander of Truth with a capital “T.”

It wasn’t Grace who’d been failing my class; it was me who’d been failing Grace.

Grace didn’t need to take initiative or show responsibility. She’d already taken more initiative and shown more responsibility than I ever had in my life. And she certainly didn’t need any words of wisdom from me or my whisker. Grace just needed a little help.

Thanks to CSU Channel Islands’ Basic Needs Initiative, I’m happy to say Grace received the help she needed in those following weeks and months: temporary housing, emergency funding to cover essentials, and – perhaps most importantly of all – a support system of caring staff, faculty, and administrators. I’m also happy to say she passed my class in the end and that she’s still enrolled as a student here at CSU Channel Islands, well on her way to graduation this time next year.

Grace is quick to credit that support system of caring staff, faculty, and administrators who made such a positive difference in her life, who helped her move out of her car and get back on her Converse-laden feet. But needless to say, it’s really Grace who made the difference in each of our lives and who put the importance of plugging ovals via no. 2 into proper perspective, all while sloshing through this thing we call life, spilling her optimism over onto anyone she comes into contact with.

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