The Magical 4.0–National Merit Finalist Essay

When I was a junior in highschool, I had to write a 500 word essay as part of the process of becoming a National Merit Finalist (remember the PSAT?). This is still o still one of my favorites:


The Magical 4.0

As I walked to the front of the class and began to read, I found it impossible to think; I could only read each word one at a time. It was the last day of finals, and I was presenting my narrative project to my English class. Only four days earlier, my dreams had been shattered. I had lost my 4.0. Struggling for an “A” throughout the quarter, it had come down to the very last test; I needed to get a 98. When the teacher returned my test, an 89.5 glared in red at the top of the page. Even more painful was the inner questioning that had immediately followed. My narrative project became my analytical tool as I struggled to make sense of my loss. Re-telling the event in the third-person, I shoved my emotions aside and asked the questions I previously had not dared to face.

As the quarter had progressed everything else had faded except this goal of maintaining my 4.0. Every spare moment had been spent studying Chemistry, or revising my World Literature essay. My friends had become strangers. Because I had been consistently going to bed after midnight, my performance in Track had suffered–I no longer had any chance of running in the State meet.

But how could I distill this experience into a narrative? Could I adequately describe the effort that had gone into my 4.0, or how close I had come to getting an A, only to see it pulled just out of my reach on the very last test? Would my audience even care? Would they understand how hard I worked for perfection, how I expected perfection–how I was used to perfection? Would they understand what it meant to lose perfection?

I labored over my narrative to shorten it–every time I started typing it would just grow and grow. The ending was the biggest challenge; it wasn’t until I started typing the last paragraph that I came up with the idea of a happy-ever-after ending, the ending I almost had, where I scored a 99 instead of an 89.5.

Not until after my presentation, as I shared my reflections on the experience, did I reveal to the class that I had really gotten the 89.5. Afterward my English professor would write, “This was one of my favorite moments of last year, Jeff. Maybe best of all was the brilliant move to have the ending different than what actually happened in your life, and then reveal that ‘real’ ending in your comments. The entire room was transfixed by your revelation; I could feel it. You both criticized yourself and elevated yourself by so bravely doing that.”

The contrast between the two endings–the dream and the reality–underscored what my narrative project had made me realize was my only question: Had I overvalued perfection? Even if I had achieved the 99, would my 4.0 have been worth so much sacrifice?

On being a gentleman, and being a lady.txt

I’ve asked a fair number of people over the past year what it means to be a gentleman, or what it means to be a lady. I compiled the better answers into a text file, and I think it’s time I posted it on the internet.

Let me know if you have any thoughts on this…

-Jeff Widman


<Begin copy/pasted text file>

These are most of the better responses I’ve heard in response to the two questions (generally posed to the opposite gender):
When answering these questions, it’s easier if you think in your head of a person or two who comes to mind when you think of a gentleman or a lady, and then analyze why they seem to be a gentleman or a lady.
What does the Bible say about these things?

What does it mean to be a gentleman?
A gentleman is a man–strong and a leader. Yet also gentle.
Strong hands–strength and hard-worker
Strong-willed–sticking to decisions, and not wavering, though teachable
Terry Smith once told me that he’d interacted with over a thousand men over the course of his business career, yet had met less then ten men who were truly “gentle”-“men.”
July H (and several others since then)–“A gentleman is someone who respects my space.” (This seems to refer to both emotional and physical space.)
Allison K–“A gentleman is adventurous in a dangerous way.” (Seems reminiscent of CS Lewis’s description of Aslan: “He’s not a tame lion.”)
Many–A gentleman is aware of things to notice when to open the door, and other little things that show he cares.
Many girls–A gentleman is compassionate–truly caring about girls, but also about other men. He opens the door not to bring attention to himself as a gentleman, but because he truly cares enough to show respect.
Brittany P–“A gentleman not only helps a lady out, he also subltly communicates the he respects her ability to do things (she’s not helpless) even as he helps her out by holding open the door.”
Girls consistently reference the attitude behind as one of respect, and not so much the actual gestures, as simply the underlying attitude. Often a distinction is made between gentlemanly gestures, and a true gentleman.
Corrie M–A gentleman listens when a lady wishes to talk.
Corrie M–A gentleman is teachable.
Andrew N–A gentleman has deep humility.

What does it mean to be a lady?
Jeff Widman–A lady graciously allows herself to be helped, without being helpless. Not defensive about her power.
Proverbs 31:30–Charm is deceitful and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Michelle Widman–A lady is self-controlled to avoid any attempts to manipulate men and get their attention.
Elizabeth Elliot–A lady does not pursue men; she holds them at arm’s length.
Ruth in the Bible–made herself available, without necessarily pursuing
Jeff Widman–A lady respects my space, both physically (the crudest form of violation) but also emotionally.
Many–A lady has a sense of refined elegance, not weakness, but not manly power either–a delicacy in some ways.
Many–A lady is very hospitable.
Andrew Nelson–Modesty is really important for a lady; a modesty that understands beauty.