Outside of a classroom, does life offer any version of “extra credit”?

I don’t offer extra credit, not even in the classroom. I don’t believe it serves my students to give them extra credit for showing up at campus events, doing additional assignments or washing my car, because these are not experiences they’ll be able to replicate once they’re done with school.

“Hey, boss, I watched a video on my own time about our profession. Do I get a raise now?”

Not only doesn’t life offer extra credit — for most people, life barely offers credit at all.

You show up 365 days in a row every year, working on most of them, taking care of yourself and others on most of them, being as decent, responsible and, yes, as good as you can be, and the best that will happen is that you’ll grow old before you die.

Sure, it’s possible that life on earth is a dress rehearsal and that the real curtain will go up in the afterlife, where the whole world will bathe us in applause and the critics will write the reviews we deserve.

But what if this is actually the one performance we get to give, appreciative audience or not?

Lots of people do a beautiful job with the roles they’ve been given, even the brief and complicated ones, yet receive only a smattering of applause before the house goes dark. Nobody in the audience is shouting, “Encore!” Whether they tripped over a few lines, missed their mark or hit every note, they won’t get to do it again.

My father, for example, worked hard lousy jobs for low wages his whole life, and it was only for the last few of them that anybody gave him credit for showing up. That happened because, as my dad put it, “It makes an impression when an extraordinarily elderly person works retail.”

My father’s credit came too late and for the wrong reason. He should have been recognized when he was younger for his sharp wit, native intelligence and hard work, but the kinds of jobs available to a working-class kid who never finished high school didn’t value those particular gifts.

Why do we dangle the promise of extra credit in school? To rouse the ambitions of the lazy and reward the insatiability of the greedy?

I’m not talking about students who need individually designed curricula, I’m talking about the assumption on the part of many students that there must be another way to achieve excellence if they can’t achieve it by doing the work thoroughly, enthusiastically and on time.

Incentive shouldn’t be confused with inspiration. Just as a “free gift with purchase” is neither free nor a gift, but more accurately a hidden cost factored into the original purchase price, real life’s version of extra credit comes with a price tag.

“Earning” a sweatshirt with the company logo on it because you put in extra teamwork isn’t a bonus. It’s a con.
Excellence can’t be bought; the promise of a little something extra in your paycheck or by the promise of the world tied up in a bow and served on silver platter won’t be enough to bring it out if it’s not there already. Greatness isn’t subject to bribes.

Not that we can help ourselves from trying. Extra credit is what your cat expects when she leaves you a mouse on doorstep. According to Professor Chad Stanley of Wilkes University, your cat is asking for more than just a meal. She wants are cute-kitty/alpha-predator bonus points. She wants to be recognized for her talent, effort and success.

Columnist Kari Lynn Collins put it this way: “Given that life is presumably non-dualistic, where there is extra credit there will be extra debit.” And that’s the part that makes us stamp our feet and yell “Unfair!”

The world will not reshuffle the deck until we all get a good hand; you don’t get extra credit in poker because you’d like to do better. What you gain when you lose is a better sense of how to play the cards right next time.
That’s a lesson — and a bonus.

Gina Barreca is a board of trustees distinguished professor of English literature at the University of Connecticut and the author of 10 books. She is a columnist for The Hartford Courant. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com.

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