Belle Curve

This is a true  story and it seems so stupid now. I’m an adult and I have found a way to stay perpetually jaded. There are so many matters of consequence. And I don’t even remember her name. But I will never forget her.

I will call her Belle. She was kind and soft and beautiful. And she was so much smarter than me.  She was so much smarter than the rest of us. She became our hero because she saved our asses. It was more than ten years ago.

I took a biology class in Junior College. I had slacked off for a few years and it was the equivalent of my third (maybe fourth?) sophomore year of college. I had finally gotten my shit together and had applied to transfer to a few “real” colleges. I had stopped sleeping with my teachers and had started getting good grades. I had been accepted to a few universities on contingency. If all went well, I would be a literature major at a university in the fall. But I had to keep my grades up.


There were several of us in the same situation and we all had to keep our grades up. We were young and this was what mattered then. For me, it was all that mattered then. It was my way out. I would go to college. It was what my parents wanted for me. It was my way of growing up. It was my ticket.

The biology class was a mandatory prerequisite requirement. I had to pass. It was the second science class of my adult life and the only class that I ever took that was graded on a curve. The teacher set the curve, not by the standard bell structure, but at the highest level achieved for the class. If a test was out of 100 and the highest grade was a 98, then the test was out of 98 and the grades followed accordingly.

The curve would have been a fair and flawless structure if it weren’t for Belle. She always got the top grade and it was always at least ten points more than second place. We knew because the grades were posted on a list outside the classroom, by top grade and last name. Belle got an A every time. The rest of us got Bs or worse.

We studied as a group for more than a week before the final test. It was worth 20 percent of our grade and we were taking it very seriously. Belle showed up after the third or fourth session to a collective sigh. It was an open study group. She meant well and she really wanted to help.

After a few sessions with Belle, we all knew we were fucked. Most of the rest of us were planning to go on with our lives studying art, theater or literature. She was going into forensics. We just didn’t get it. We didn’t speak the language. She spoke the language.

It was the night before the test and it was past midnight. I don’t remember who spoke first. We had all had too much coffee. Some of us had had too much to drink. Someone finally said what we had all been thinking. “Look Belle, if you just got five or six questions wrong, all of us would get better grades.” A discussion followed. Belle looked like she had been shot. We called it a night and went home.

A week later I got an email that I had gotten an A on the test. I immediately felt sick; I knew that I had gotten several questions wrong. It was my last test of the semester but I went back to the campus because I had to know.

The list was on the door. Belle got a 90 out of 100. She was the top score. I got an 88 and so did most of the study group. As I stared at the numbers, as a took in the list, I knew that Belle threw it. There was not a question on the test that she would have struggled with. She tried to help us with every possible question. She knew the material. She knew all of it.

As I stood gaping at the numbers, staring into absolute abyss, the class assistant came up behind me. He said, “She left the last ten questions blank. She didn’t even answer them.”

Belle didn’t do it to make friends. We were all going to different colleges in the fall. She knew we wouldn’t see each other again.

It was the spring of 2002, the first spring after the towers fell, and, as far as we knew, the world was on its knees. The spring sun, and the smell of flowers, had barely started to permeate after a cold, dark winter. We were young people in a world that had gone off the rails. Young men from my fall’s philosophy class, only the semester before, had already been sent to basic. We just didn’t have the stomach for failed systems any longer. We were growing up.

I was reminded of Belle as I was reading about the protests in Istanbul. There is an uprising in the country of Turkey. Parents and their children showed up at Gezi Park, a city park in Istanbul, like Julia Butterfly Hill’s apostles, they ate  sandwiches and held their ground as developers tried to destroy the trees in favor of a strip mall. They stayed there. They stayed and waited until the police came.


And the police came.

I read a blog written by a Turkish yoga teacher who was in the park when the Turkish police got there. As some of the police were launching tear gas and brutalizing mothers, fathers and small children, a few of the uniformed men quit their jobs on the spot, handed in their badges, and joined the protesters.

As I read the article, I was reminded of Occupy Oakland; I was reminded of UC Davis, my alma mater, the university that I eventually graduated from. I was reminded of heroes.  I was reminded of Belle.

Belle could have finished her test. She could have answered every question and she would have gotten every answer right. She was better than us. She had the upper hand. She had the power. And she owed us nothing.

But sometimes, even though we aren’t obligated, or won’t benefit, or don’t have any responsibility to make a sacrifice, sometimes, even then, we decide that the “we” is bigger than the “me”.

Belle sacrificed her upper-hand because she knew that it was the right thing to do. She knew that the system was rigged. She knew that her forfeiture would mean nothing to her, she knew that there would be no consequence for her, but, she knew that it would mean a lot to those around her.  Belle gave us the gift of mercy.

That’s what it was: mercy.

A decade ago, throwing a test was valor. For me, at the time, it was heroism. Today is different. What people are facing today was not what my parents prepared me for. They didn’t expect this. I didn’t expect this.

We all expected mercy.

I’m struggling with the words to end this blog. We live in a different world. Sometimes there are no words.  Sometimes there is no mercy.

But sometimes there is.