I stared at the grade in disbelief. The C- simply could not be possible. I had earned nothing but A’s in my high school English classes; I had won almost all of my school’s writing awards. How could my first college essay have that ugly, green C- scrawled on it?
Almost worse than the grade were the seemingly unending corrections and notes that filled the essay’s margins. These markings resembled nothing I had ever seen before on a paper. They seemed to shout, over and over again, in a terribly screechy, sing-song voice, “You’re not good enough for college! You’re not good enough for college!”
That afternoon was certainly painful; I would be lying if I said no tears were shed. However, it was also the first key moment of a necessary recognition, of what the ancient Greeks called anagnorisis. This first college essay helped me understand the following: college is different. It requires us to think harder, more deeply, and more creatively than anything that comes before it. For every single word and every single thought, we are required to consider their specifics and to think through their possible ramifications. The transition to college is thus a struggle for all of us, whoever we are and wherever we come from and whatever we study. No matter what course I attempted after that semester, whether it was within my eventual major (English and Comparative Literature) or something further afield (Astronomy or Middle Eastern Politics), I took its challenges more seriously and tried my hardest to rise to them as best as I could.
If you had told me that day that I would become a writing professor, I would have laughed loudly and sworn that I would never do to others what had just been done to me. Now, however, I help teach my students (a bit less painfully, hopefully) that same lesson, that college will require more effort than they ever thought possible but that the hard work eventually pays off in unimaginable and indispensable ways.
Sarah Bartlett Wilson is a Writing Specialist in the College of Arts and Sciences.