Proverbs from the Cold: 1987

“For some it’s easier to choose the hard way.”

In 1987 I was in my third year of art school in Manhattan. I’d only been at that school for two years, though, having had one year at a liberal arts college. I was able to transfer all of my humanities credits, which means that for three blissful years I was free to focus just on art. I spent my hours in studio classes, mostly, with a few credits of art history thrown in each semester. I liked art history more than I’d expected to – once we got past the prehistoric fertility fetishes and Doric vs. Ionic columns – and was eagerly applying myself.

It was the day of the fall/winter session’s final exam. In the wee hours a blizzard had kicked into high gear, crippling the entire city by rush hour. The snow was already approaching knee height. City services struggled to plow the streets. Subway service was spotty.

Still, I was determined to take that final. I gave myself two extra hours to negotiate the miles between my apartment in Queens and my classroom on east 23rd Street. I needed them, such was the slog. The storm blew a horizontal blast. I just managed to make it there in time. When I arrived I looked as though someone had turned a snow blower on me. My boots were full, my pants’ legs soaked. Shaking snow from my hat, I noted that everyone else who’d showed up also looked is if they’d been hit with a snow bomb. Although “everyone” is an overstatement. Out of a class of roughly forty students, there were seven of us there, including our instructor. He was also soaked. Yet he was beaming.

“That’s it!” he laughed. “You’re all getting A’s just for showing up.”

We were shocked. But he wasn’t finished.

“You have a choice,” he continued. “If you want to head back home, go right ahead. Or you can stay and take the test.”

Two of my colleagues looked at him dubiously. “Really?” one of them probed. “We can just go home? And you’ll give us an A anyway?”

“Yes,” he assured them.

They looked at each other and shrugged, heading for the door.

The remaining four of us took our seats and waited. Test papers were distributed, the time noted, and we began.

I never once considered turning around. I had taken notes all semester. I’d listened. I’d studied for this. I was ready. But, more important, I wanted to show that I was ready. I didn’t want the charity grade. Didn’t need it.

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