the Composition
for Honours Class,
Howard University,

  Authors & Artists


Faces & Voices 4
Faces & Voices 5

Conversation Piece
E. R. Braithwaite

        She was standing in the corridor as I approached my office that morning, casually elegant in a snugly fitted denim ensemble, shiny high heels and an intricately arranged coiffure. When our glances met, she attempted a smile which narrowly restricted itself to the corners of her mouth.
        “Morning, Professor,” she greeted me.
        “Good morning. Are you here to see me?”
        “Yes. If you could spare me a few minutes.”
I opened the door and invited her to be seated. As she settled herself I hung up my coat and adjusted the window shades to allow the winter sunlight full access to every part of the room. I took a seat opposite her, noticing how rigidly upright she held herself on the front edge of the chair, a small bundle of keys held tightly in the silver-ringed fingers of both hands.
        “How may I help you, Miss…”
        “Gadson. Melissa Gadson.” She quickly supplied “I was in your Writing Workshop last semester. I’m here to ask about my grade.”
        “The grades are all posted on the Internet,” I said “and additionally they are on the notice board in the corridor.”
        “Yes, I know,” she said. I waited, but her attention seemed occupied with the bundle of keys, which emitted a soft tinkle as she teased them. I excused myself and went into the corridor to consult the grade sheet. There it was. Melissa Gadson-C. I re-entered the room and resumed my seat.
        “Your work earned a C,” I told her.
        “It’s about my scholarship,” she blurted out. “I can’t have a C. I’d lose my scholarship.”
        “I’m sorry to hear that , but there’s nothing I can do about it now,” I said. “I gave you the grade which your work dictated and deserved.”
        “You could change it. I can’t lose my scholarship. You can change the grade,” surprising me with her sudden assertiveness. “You could give me a B so I can keep my scholarship.”
        “I don’t think so, Miss Gadson. As a matter of fact, I think I was quite generous when I gave your work a C. Do you have some of your work here? I’d like you to see why your work deserved nothing better.”
        “No, I didn’t, like, think to bring it.”
        “Well, bring it with you later today and we can discuss it together.”
        “But, would you change the grade?”
        “But, what’s the big difference between giving me a C or a B?”
        “The difference is in the quality of the work you presented during the entire semester. On the very first day of class, I told all the students that I was easily available to help them in any way I could. I mentioned the times of my availability and made it clear that no special appointment was necessary. Not once during the entire semester did you come to see me.”
        “But…” she attempted to interrupt.
        “Hear me out, please,” I insisted. “You may have noticed that on each corrected assignment returned to you there were notations, errors and suggestions underlined in red. The idea was to get your attention, for your work’s sake. Not once did you come to discuss anything with me, and you continued to make the same mistakes, showing no improvement in the style or structure of your work.”
        “I couldn’t come to see you,” she said. “I have a job off campus and I have to be there at the same time you’re in your office.”
        “How long have you had the job?”
        “Two years.”
        “So you knew that taking the class might create some difficulty for you so far as managing your time was concerned.”
        “Yes, but I, like figured the class wouldn’t be too difficult. I mean, I’ve always liked to write and I didn’t think the workshop would be a big deal. I always did well in my English classes.”
        “Unfortunately, you did very poorly in the workshop.”
        “It couldn’t have been so bad. My friends all liked the things I did. I’d show it to them and they’d say it was good. You’re the only one who didn’t seem to think so. Anyway, I need you to give me an upgrade.”
        “Miss Gadson, when you checked your grade on the notice board were you aware that there were several other students with the same grade?”
        “Yes,” reluctantly.
        “If I upgrade you should I not be obliged to do the same for them?”
        “I don’t see why. They’re not here asking for the change.”
        “That’s true, but the unspoken understanding I s that I treat all students fairly, equally, without favour or bias of any kind. If I make a change in your grade I would have to make a similar change in theirs.”
        “Why? Who would know?” she asked. “It would be between you and me.”
        “No. It would be between you and me and every other member of the class when they became aware of this visit as they very probably will.”
        “God, it’s so unfair,” she cried. “Couldn’t you do me this one favour, please?”
        “Miss Gadson, if I did it would compromise those very ethics we discussed in class. May I say this? You are a healthy, attractive, intelligent Black woman. You really do not need to be asking favours of me or any one else. The fact that you are a full-time student holding down a job tells me that you are strong and independent. Don’t compromise that independence now. The work assigned to you in the workshop was quite comfortably within the compass of your abilities had you bothered to try. Perhaps a little better management of your time is all you need.”
        She turned her face towards the window, nibbling at her lower lip as if considering the things I had just said, then, again looking at me.
        “So you won’t give me an upgrade?”
        “I won’t do it,” I replied.
With a graceful motion she stood and walked from the room.

© 2002 Howard University
(First Published in limited print edition, An Anthology of Verse, Prose & Art, by the Composition for Honours Class, Howard University, Spring 2002. Professor E.R. Braithwaite)
HOWARD UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES, 500 Howard Place, NW, Washington, DC 20059.  Phone (202) 806-7234.