03240_000_010It was my most important lesson in high school. Merely good performance was not enough—not when my teacher measured it against what I might have done.
Georgia Young had taught every one of my five brothers and sisters at Salt Lake City’s West High School. As the youngest, I enjoyed the generosity and unselfishness and labors of all the others. But Miss Young taught me a valuable lesson about doing my very best.
Coupled with a reasonable scholastic record and some extracurricular activity, my high school sports participation qualified me as one of those who could be considered to receive a special athletics award upon graduation. My brother had won the award before me, and I hoped for this same recognition.
As the final year of school concluded and various award and scholarship winners were being considered, my name surfaced as one of the finalists for the award, with its accompanying medal and watch. I was not confident that I would win, but I was hopeful, and I went through the final report card day collecting the grades that could make a vital difference in my chances.
From each class through that morning came the coveted “A” that would enhance my prospects for the award. Only Miss Young’s fifth-period English class remained, and I went there quite confident that my marks and other qualifications would combine to make me a serious candidate. I was sure I would get an “A” from Miss Young, since my performance through the year had supported that grade each month preceding this final one. The sixth and last period was athletics and I knew I would get an “A” there, which would make my report card perfect for that month and my year’s record worthy of consideration.
The report cards were passed to the front in our English class and handed to the teacher in the customary fashion. While we waited for our grades, we read books and talked.
From hand to hand my card came down the aisle, enlisting a certain amount of attention from students sitting ahead of me who caught a glimpse of what was written there. A wave of apprehension passed, but it was quickly dissipated by my confidence that there would be an “A” on the card that reached me.
When I finally received the card, I stared at it unbelievingly. In the space alongside the English literature class was an “E,” a failing mark. Georgia Young had signed her name across from that mark.
I was stunned and deeply surprised and hurt and angry. Others looked at me with curiosity as they passed from the room. I waited until they were gone and then went to Miss Young’s desk. She was looking at her attendance book and didn’t raise her eyes when I laid my card in front of her and said, “This is my card. You have made a mistake.”
She looked up, her face white and grim, looked at the card, and said, “You are right, I have made a mistake.” She took the card, superimposed a large “C” over the “E,” and handed it back to me. “You don’t deserve an ‘E,’” she said. “That might keep you from graduating. So I will give you a ‘C.’”
“Miss Young,” I pleaded, “how can you do this to me? I have scored high on every test, and I am sure that in comparison with the other students I deserve an ‘A’.”
“Yes,” she replied, “you have done well on the tests. You have done well in the class. You came here pretty well equipped to sail through this class, the product, in part, no doubt of your wonderful mother’s love of literature. You had already read much of what we have been studying. If I were marking you in comparison with all the other students, I would probably give you an ‘A.’ But I am not marking on that basis this time.
“I think you have not been fair with me,” she continued. “Many times you have been absent from this class to prepare for ball games of various kinds, and you have excused yourself because you thought the ball game was more important and the coaches would support you. I have watched with great anxiety what you have done,” she said. “I love your wonderful mother. I have enjoyed and loved every one of your brothers and sisters. I have watched you through your years at this school, and you have done well. But you have not been conscientious in your responsibilities in this class. So for this month I am not grading you in comparison with all the other students. I am grading you on the basis of what you have done compared with what you could have done and should have done. You get a ‘C.’”
Sobered and ashamed I said, “Miss Young, do you understand what this will do to me?” I had in mind the athletic award. She replied, her face pained but determined, “Yes, I know what this will do to you. I would like you to know that I love you and have great hopes for your future, and that I have been up all night thinking about this and making the decision. You get a ‘C.’”
“Thank you, Miss Young,” I said quietly, and I went my way. I did not receive the medal and watch. My name was not engraved on the plaque.
But I lived long enough to stand as a General Authority of the Church before a group of retired schoolteachers in the Lion House in Salt Lake City and recall this incident. I had been invited by the president of the retired teachers organization to speak to this group. Sitting there among them was Georgia Young.
I told our story, and I said at the end, “I am glad I lived long enough to face Georgia Young and tell her, in the presence of her respectful peers, that the most important lesson I ever learned in school was the one she taught me that spring day. In the eyes of God and wise men, none of us will be judged in comparison with what others do with their time and talents and opportunities; we will find our judgment on that scale that reports what we did compared with what we could have and should have done.”
As a teacher myself who has for many years been blessed with the possibility of influencing for good the lives of others, I have never had far from my mind and heart that incident in fifth-period English literature at West High School. I see clearly in my mind’s eye that doughty little soul agonizing through the night making her decision with an eye to the future of a student she loved and cared about too much not to require his best.