Throughout my academic life, any grade I brought home shy of a 100 percent on a test or an A on a report card was questioned. My parents didn’t come from the “good job” school and rather were more of the “you performed just as expected” school. If I scored a 99% on an exam, my parents would inquire about the other 1%. Maybe it was the Russian in them – not “Tiger parents” exactly, but maybe “Bear parents”?
What do you call the anti-helicopter parent? They were those; they didn’t want to do any more than they needed to, and with good reason, they had already moved me across the world so I could have freedom and the American dream. When I assured them “I got it” about the whole high school and college section of my life, they were glad I grabbed the reigns to steer my life so they could focus on redirecting theirs.
I graduated college with a 3.75 GPA, Magna Cum Laude, which sounds like the highest honor, but it’s not. Summa Cum Laude, which you needed a 3.8 to get awarded was merely .05 points away and after 20 years it still pisses me off when I think about the one “A-” which could have been an “A” and altered the course of my Cum Laudes.
And of course, changing the course of my life not at all.
Getting an “A” wasn’t so much about mastering a subject, bettering myself, or stretching my brain. Getting an “A” was akin to winning a game. An “A” was the goal, the finish line. Getting a “B” meant coming in second; it meant someone was better than me and that didn’t settle well with me.
My son attends one of the country’s elite high schools where the curriculum and the manner in which his school is run is very collegiate. On his last report card, he had a couple B’s, a couple B+’s, and an outstanding accompanying narrative from every teacher. He starred in one of the leading roles in his first high school play and kicked ass in Honors math and geometry and wrote a steampunk-themed science fiction short story which made me question if I should bother writing another word because my 14-year-old son is already better than me. [Forgive the oozing comments of ruthless insecurity.]
When I scanned the report card, my eyes habitually searching for the A’s, I felt a tiny kick in my gut. I would have been devastated by these grades yet he told me he was proud of his first trimester grades. I told him I was proud of him too and gave the subject of grades a thought beyond what I was brainwashed to believe. I know at a “regular school,” he’d be a grade ahead – and why? What’s the hurry? Why advance, advance, advance? Why is the MO to breed students who compete with peers? Why do grades have such lasting impact and how can a human’s education retention vs. deeper understanding be measured? How can we really judge how much people learn?
Theoretically, if you get a 90% on a test, it means 90% of what they asked (which was an even smaller percentage of what was taught) was answered correctly. Today, at 42 years old, after I’ve written every single day for 350 days in a deconstructed daily memoir, it dawned on me: maybe 90% of trigonometry or European history or plant biology is just fine. In fact, maybe it’s great! Add years and minus a few percent for memory holes and the percentage would be substantially less, but what percentage do we use in our adult lives?
As we become functional adults in society, our brains get bogged down with survival minutia which trumps the academic curriculum once embedded in the folds of our cerebellum. Our brains focus on remembering to pay the mortgage, heat the house, keep food in the refrigerator, and make sure our children don’t die of smallpox. We plan road trips and vote for Presidents and pursue our dreams and fall in love and make sure our kids are stimulated with piano lessons and dance lessons. Our high school A’s in geometry often falls short of solving the problem of the day.
I’m not sure what it was about today when this pivotal realization moment occurred; when this notion, which seems so obvious now, just clicked in me. For the sake of my son and my daughter, I hope this newfound ideology becomes cemented on my cerebral cortex and forever redefines how I look at another report card or grade.