It was 1991, and I was about to graduate from law school. My parents made the nine-hour drive from Pennsylvania to Michigan for the occasion, the first time since I had left home three years prior. I met them at school, eager to show them the place where I finally transitioned from child to adult.
Unlike college when I was still under my parents’ thumbs, I completed law school without their hand-holding or bank accounts. As much as it would have been nice to have them foot the bills, I knew I had to the cut the apron strings and set out on my own.
In order to do this as a flat-broke college grad, I had to get every loan possible, and work at least 20 to 30 hours a week with a full course load. It wasn’t easy. I drove a 1976 Volkswagen Beetle through snow-blown Michigan winters, shopped at thrift stores, and ate plenty of ramen.
But I did well, earning a spot on Law Review, getting a coveted internship at the county prosecutor’s office, and securing two job offers before graduation. All I had to do now was accept the sweetest reward of all — my parents’ approval.
Dressed in the eggplant business suit I’d splurged on with my meager savings, I walked them through the institution that would award me my degree later that day. I pointed out the library, the bookstore, the mock courtroom, the school cafe where I ate bran muffins and the heavily smoke-infused student lounge.
I told them how the system worked — how our final grades in every non-writing course were based on anonymous “blue book” exams. To demonstrate this, I pulled my “Secured Transactions and Bankruptcy” blue book out of my bag while we sat in the cafe for a coffee break. It was the last exam I had taken, and I still needed to check my grade.
“See Mom and Dad, this booklet is what we record our exam answers in. Each one has a random number in the corner… here,” I pointed. “In order to see what grade I got on this exam, I have to find that number on a bulletin board upstairs. We call it ‘The Wailing Wall,’” I said with a chuckle, “I’ll show you.”
After finishing our Styrofoam cups of coffee, we took the elevators to the Wailing Wall on the sixth floor. Students were milling about, muttering the long numbers from their blue books, pointing to the printouts on the wall, and drawing their fingers across the board to the columns of final grades.
“Okay, so let’s find my Secured Transactions and Bankruptcy blue book number,” I guided my parents, who seemed fascinated by my world.
The three of us scanned the lists, looking for the right combination of numbers.
“Is that it?” my mother said excitedly, pointing and squinting at a number high on the wall.
“You found it, Mom, nice job!” I said. I held the place with my fingertip. “Now, let’s follow the line over to the grade column.” I dragged my finger along, and they watched, each of us sporting an eager grin.
“And voila!” I said when my fingertip reached the column of letter grades. “What does it say?” I asked, as they craned their necks to see.
My parents’ expressions turned from cheerfully entertained, to somewhat confused, to downright embarrassed.
“It says D+,” my father reported with deadpan delivery.
For that moment, I felt that all was lost. Every bad memory of disappointing Cs on my high school report cards and college transcripts bubbled to the surface. Would I ever exceed my parents’ mediocre expectations for me?
But less than an hour later in the auditorium, they watched, tears flooding their eyes, as their only daughter accepted her hard-earned Juris Doctor degree.
“We’re so proud of what you’ve accomplished,” they gushed, hugging and kissing me after the ceremony. Turns out, my grades hadn’t defined me after all. And much to my surprise, my parents knew that better than I did.