Thomas slammed the paper down on the TA's desk. She did not look up from where she was painting her nails.
"This," he snarled, "is unacceptable."
She took her time putting the lid of the polish back on the bottle, opening the desk and one-by-one putting her various manicure tools away. He waited, fuming all the while. If she thought the wait would cool his temper, she was mistaken.
Finally, Ms. Kane picked up the folder of carefully typewritten pages. She considered the very large, very red curl of a C- in her handwriting on the front. She riffled through the pages one-handed, littered through with yet more loops of red. "It's certainly not good," she agreed finally, setting his paper back down, "but it is a passing grade." She deigned to look at him for the first time, eyes green as poison beneath the heavy fringe of her lashes. "You know what they say," she said, holding her nails at a careful angle to keep them safe as they dried. "C's get degrees."
"This is not a C paper," he snapped, hitting the desk again with the heel of his hand. He was leaning dangerously forward. She was unmoved.
"No," she agreed with a flutter of her eyelashes, "it isn't." She tapped the big red letter with a dry fingernail. "It's a C minus paper."
"Bullshit." Her pens rattled. She glanced, briefly, at the white-knuckled fist on her desk. It was a glance heavy with bemused disdain. She arched an eyebrow at him. "This paper is worth a B plus," he said. "Minimum."
"If it was worth a B plus," she said, as if with infinite patience, "you would have a B plus. Ergo—"
"What's wrong with it, then?" he interrupted. "Which part of this paper failed to meet the standards on the rubric?"
She said nothing for a long moment, as if waiting for something. When it did not come, she reached out, and flipped open the folder to the first page. She pointed to the first of many red paragraphs. "If you start here," she suggested, "and read all of the red bits, right to the very end, you may just find the answer you're looking for."
"This doesn't explain a C minus," he said, jabbing a finger at the notes. "This is pedantry."
"It's a logic class," she reminded him. "Pedantry is the point." She popped her Ps aggressively.
"I know exactly what this is," he said.
"You don't like me."
"Don't say it like it makes you special, dear."
"You haven't liked me since Delaney's class freshman year, you've hated me ever since I beat you fencing—"
"I've done you the great kindness of overlooking your consistent and egregious failures to play by the rules," she interrupted, "but this is poor sportsmanship."
"—and you're mad," he finished, "because I'm better than you—"
"—and you know it. And no red pen, or stupid fake accent, is going to fix that."
There was an impish twist to her mouth as he finished this tirade. "You've caught me," she said, with a playful wrinkle of her nose. "There's a dastardly conspiracy amongst those of us not raised to broadcast English, to insert structural flaws into your arguments to make them look bad." He did not respond to this, his mouth a thin line, brows drawn. "However: regardless of how much joy it brings you to make me watch as you lavish affection upon your own diction, I will be needing to meet with other students today."
"You shouldn't even be teaching this class," he accused. "You're an undergrad."
"I grade no more harshly than Simmons," she countered, "and he did not give such helpful notes. If you're thinking about going to him for support, you're likely to leave his office with a D."
"I am aware of his grading policies," he bit through his teeth.
"Are you aware that he's given out a single, solitary A in the entire course of his tenure? Would you like to see what an A looks like?" She reached into her desk without waiting for an answer, and dropped a thick, spiral-bound stack onto her desk. "It would have been an A plus," she explained, opening it, "but he thought the more interactive visual aids constituted passive-aggressive sass, and docked my grade accordingly."
Paper shapes stuck up out of the page, creating a three-dimensional chart. He stared at it.
"Regardless," she continued, shutting it again, "Professor Simmons would not have given me control of this class if he did not trust my judgment implicitly, and he is unlikely to find your verbal arguments any more compelling than I found your written ones."
Thomas was silent for a long moment.
"I put a lot of work into this," he said finally, slowly. "I came to every lecture, I did every reading, I. I did well on every test."
"Oh dear," she said, with an affected pout not meant to be endearing. "Did you think I couldn't tell? Did you think it wasn't obvious that you put your whole heart and soul into this thing? That you did your very, very best?" Her smile was faint and patronizing. "You've misunderstood the problem. The problem isn't that you didn't do your best. The problem is that your best isn't good enough."
The tension in his jaw was nearly enough to crack a molar.
"Though actually," she continued, with a small and thoughtful frown, "I suppose a C minus means your best is just barely good enough. Just as badly as a person can do without failing. I suppose you've heard that joke, what do you call someone who barely passes med school?"
"Fuck you." His leg had developed a sort of jitter, not quite bouncing.
"Doctor," she corrected. "The punchline is doctor. It's funny because it's true."
"I cannot get a—a C in this class."
"You can, and you are."
"I—I can do extra credit work."
"There is no extra credit work."
He hit her desk again. She reacted no more than she had to prior displays. She cocked her head to the side to watch as he struggled for words.
"I—I—I could have you fired," he managed finally. "Expelled, your—your scholarship, I could—"
"Yes, I believe I get the idea," she interrupted. "I was wondering when we'd get to this part, you may of course have me removed from your presence as suits you. Just call up Daddy and let him know that a girl was mean to you."
Thomas was white-knuckled again. He didn't try to speak.
Ms. Kane leaned forward, lacing her fingers together. Her elbows didn't touch the top of the desk. "Would you like me to predict your future, Tommy?" she teased.
He said nothing.
"You're going to graduate," she informed him, "and you're going to do your very best, and even when it's good enough, it isn't going to be good enough. You will live a perfectly acceptable life, and marry a perfectly acceptable woman, and you will never know what real failure even looks like. You'll feel terribly unfulfilled, and neither your second nor third marriage will fix it. You have been given every possible advantage, and you will use them to maintain a comfortable mediocrity, assuming all the while that it's simply how things are, because when anything threatened to be difficult you threw a tantrum until it went away. You will live your life as if it is your goal to be a footnote in someone else's biography."
"Not special like you," he taunted, too shaky to be a sneer, his limbs like rubber bands ready to snap.
"Oh, it's cute that you think I'd want to be." She leaned back. "I will be doing... whatever I'd like." She shrugged. "Because what I lack in natural-born advantages, I make up for in being as good at everything as you wish you could be at anything." She picked up the receiver on the desk phone, and offered it to him. "Would you like to call your father now?" she asked. "Or do you have some sort of special line that let's him know when you're having a mean girl emergency?"
After a long moment, Thomas grabbed his paper. Halfway out the door, he flung it into the trash bin.
"Wayne," she barked, and he froze immediately, stopped in place by the force of the order. "Turn around."
Slowly, fists at his sides, he did so.
"Do you think I enjoy wasting my time?" she demanded. "Do you think that it was some trivial thing, reading and rereading to try and pinpoint what was salvageable in that paper of yours? I did you a favor. I may not be able to blame you for wanting to put your work where it belongs, but those pages are more red ink than black, and you will show the appropriate gratitude."
Thomas bent, and picked up the folder from the top of the bin, bent and wrinkled though it was.
"And what do you say when you're grateful?" she asked.
"Thank you," he said, barely more than a hoarse whisper.
She regarded him in silence; he allowed her to do so. "Good boy," she said finally. "You may go."