I received interim report cards for my two younger children. It was their first report card with letter grades. I placed the sealed envelopes cautiously on the counter as if they were Pandora's Box.
For I knew that once those envelopes were opened, their education going forward would be unjustly ruled by a handful of cold and calculated letters of the alphabet. Even if those letters were toward the front.
I knew it was coming. Not too long ago my daughter rushed to greet me with some stapled sheets of papers in her hand. She was beaming. It was a third grade math test. "Daddy, I only got one wrong!" she said.
She had every right to be proud. Out of 25 questions, she answered 24 correctly. Question 25, which she got wrong, was a picture of a cylinder with a simple instruction: Name this three dimensional object.
In the blank space provided she had written "Fluffy". I looked up at her. "I thought I was supposed to give the cylinder a name," she explained.
Her twin brother did equally well, but was very troubled by the results. "I think the teacher made a mistake. I got 23 right but she wrote down 92 with this funny line thingy."
That's when I became worried.
Until recently all they ever received were happy faces and encouraging comments like "great job" and "star student", even when they made lots of mistakes. Now they were getting tests returned with raw percentages, leaving me to explain not only their significance, but how they were calculated.
And until now, their report cards had been comprised of non-threatening letters like i for improving and g for good, accompanied by constructive comments from their teachers like "when legible, his writing shows great creativity" or "her analytic abilities are catching up with her exuberant and highly audible verbal skills" or "his curiosity about the drinking fountain is well beyond that of other boys in the class."
I have always thought that in the early school years, the evaluation for a child who is discovering calculus compared to the evaluation for a child who shows up day after day with his shirt on backward is really just an exercise in creative writing for the teachers.
But staring at the unopened envelopes on the counter, I knew this was all about to change. For as much as we try to minimize their significance, grades shape our lives.
My own awakening to the harsh realities of grades didn't come until I was in high school. As a freshman I took a class in pottery. It was one of a series of required classes that came under the general classification of art. For my final project I made a large glazed rock and received a D for my efforts. I tried to forget about it, but it ultimately showed up on a report card which my parents waved in front of my face.
"How could you get a D in art?" they wanted to know.
I told them the truth. "You know that paperweight I gave you? It was supposed to be a pitcher."
"You got a D in art just because you couldn't make a pitcher?"
"No," I replied, "I got a D in art because I broke a window."
"You broke a window?"
"Yes, I broke a window throwing the paperweight."
My parents were mortified. "Why on earth would you throw a paperweight in class?"
"Because I couldn't throw a pitcher!"
"But why would you throw anything?" they demanded.
"Because it's a pottery class!" I snipped. "You put clay slip on a wheel and turn it into shape. It's called throwing. I was spinning the pottery wheel too hard, my pitcher collapsed, and the handle went flying off the wheel and broke the window. I put the clump that was left in the kiln and made a paperweight. And that's why I got a D in art."
This silenced them for a minute. But despite my relatively high marks in science, which they chose to overlook, they still took it upon themselves to lecture me on the importance of grades. They did this in a positive, constructive manner by warning me what would happen if they weren't good.
As scare tactics go, it worked pretty well.
Based on their practical input I imagined myself going for a job interview at the ACME Refuse Removal Company after I was turned down by every single college in the country. The hiring supervisor is looking at my transcripts. "Hmmm," he says ominously, "It says here you got a D in art. How do you explain that?"
I choke on my words before they even enter my throat. "Well," I cough, "I couldn't throw a pitcher. . ."
He rises in his chair signaling that the interview is over. "Son," he reminds me sternly, "We throw trash in trucks. Come back when you are a little more qualified."
I never get married either.
I took my parents' ominous warning to heart. I decided it was important to make good grades: more important, even, than learning. So I selectively piled up the classes I was good at, maneuvered my way around the ones I was bad at, and took every easy elective I could find.
I stayed away from grade-challenging classes like art and English and concentrated on subjects like math and science which I needed in order to calculate the really important numbers—like weighted test scores and cumulative grade points—that I would need to keep me off on the backend of a smelly garbage truck.
Ultimately my high school academic record was distilled into a single number: the grade point average. And it was coming up.
Along the way I collected some additional numbers that were generated from some Standard Achievement Tests which I took one Saturday afternoon. With those three numbers and a rather bland essay about the importance of recycling, I got into a big University studying Civil Engineering where I took, among other things, classes in sewage treatment and waste management.
With the numbers I racked up in college I ultimately got a job, and even went to graduate school. Along the way I met my wife, traveled, moved across the country, had children, and became a responsible, well-adjusted adult who has never developed any artistic talent and who has never read Shakespeare.
This is why the envelopes are sitting on the counter with all the gravity of a glazed paperweight.
Here is what I want to tell my kids. I want to tell them that they should take as many art classes as they want even if they don't have the talent. I want them to throw beautiful glazed rocks and break as many glass ceilings as they can. I want them to be guided by their passions, not by their grades. I want their world to be full of opportunities including, but not limited to, riding shotgun on a sanitation crew.
But I know how the world works. And little by little I will have to communicate the importance of grades to my kids. I will have to convey their paradoxical nature; that they measure what we know by tallying everything we get wrong; that they are like pianos—it is far easier to bring them down that to bring them up; and that the bad ones follow us around wherever we go like long forgotten bubble gum wrappers discarded in our back pockets.
I will have to tell them that rightly or wrongly, their grades will influence many important events in their lives, including how, exactly, they will advise their own kids when they come home with, say, a D in math and an A in pottery.
But not yet. I grab a thick magic marker and write over each of the unopened envelopes in big bold red letters, GREAT JOB!
Because I think I have a right to grade my kids too.
Dad In The Box is published every Tuesday on TheAlternativePress.com.