A few weeks ago, report cards came home. I was pleasantly surprised to see a ‘B’ for Adrian in math, especially recalling the number of failed tests I discretely threw in the recycling bin.
“Good job,” I congratulated him. “Way to go, you brought that grade up!”
He looked at the floor and shrugged. I put my arm around him, thinking perhaps he was sad it wasn’t an ‘A.’ “Hey, buddy, that’s really great, I’m proud of you!”
He nodded and shrugged at the floor again. This wasn’t the reaction I expected; usually he would be beaming. “What’s wrong, aren’t you happy about it?” I asked.
“Well….” he began. He sighed loudly. “Well, maybe I was copying off my friend’s paper.”
“As in you were cheating?” I asked.
“Just a little!” He said. “Ms. M might have to talk to you about it.”
“Oh geez. Don’t cheat, Adrian. It’s ok if you have lower grades, you don’t need to copy off your friend’s paper. Just do your best.”
“I know,” he said. “It’s just hard for me. But I only did it a little bit. Don’t worry, the teacher might not talk to you if I stop,” he said, patting my shoulder reassuringly. “You never know!” He said, regaining his usual brightness. He grinned at me and ran downstairs.
Today, I attended a luncheon for the Middle School celebrating students who achieved a 4.0 last semester. The principal talked about how hard it is to get straight A’s while I watched Stephen, my gifted protege. It sure didn’t seem hard for him. My own mother prayed I would get a ‘B’ so I would chill out and see the world didn’t end below 90% accuracy.
One of the best lessons I learned about grades was from my high school Honors English teacher. She was calling us up one by one to talk about our grade in class. My friend went up and returned to her desk smiling.
“What did she say?” I whispered.
“She said I did a great job and she’s proud of me,” my friend replied. “I got a B+!”
“Way to go,” I said, smiling sincerely at her. Inside, I was thinking of the accolades I was sure to receive with my solid A.
When my turn came, the teacher said, “You have an A, 94%.”
“Great!” I said with a smile.
The teacher looked up at me soberly from her desk. “Not great,” she said. “You haven’t been trying in class and I think you can do a lot better. I’d like to see better work from you next semester.”
I was stunned. She said “good job” to a B+ and “try harder” to an A!? But as I returned to my desk, I realized she was right. An A without effort didn’t mean much. The next semester, I worked harder in her class than any other, and I don’t even know what my grade was at the end. But I felt good, because I earned it.
I have nothing against grades, but when I attend ceremony after ceremony for Stephen, who has never had to study, and see Adrian struggling on the sidelines, I wonder what we’re celebrating exactly. Don’t we have it backwards? Why are we cheering for the kids who already have everything? Maybe some of them worked for their 4.0, but what about the kids who worked for a 3.0?
This afternoon, I will go to Adrian’s parent/teacher conference, which Adrian is anxious about because he’s worried about what the teacher will say about his grades and his cheating.
“I already talked to her about copying your friend’s paper, and she said you turned it around,” I reassured him. “And I don’t care what your grades are, as long as you’re doing your best. I’d rather see a D you earned than a B you didn’t.”
Indeed, Adrian’s teacher selected him for the “Bobcat of the Quarter,” a character award, because he has been doing his own work and trying harder. But his math grade has suffered for his honesty. I am prouder of Adrian’s bobcat award than all of Stephen’s honor roll awards (though he got a couple bobcats in there as well!).
Last night, Adrian cried in distress about his upcoming conference. “It’s just hard for me,” he said. “I always fail everything.” I rubbed his back until he calmed down.
“Adrian, what are the points of the scout law?” I asked.
“A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent,” he recited immediately.
“Good. Is there anything in there about grades?” I asked. He shook his head. “Do you know the fruits of the spirit?”
He shrugged, less well-versed in these.
“The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control,” I said. “Those are the things God wants you to be. Are grades in that list?”
He shook his head again.
I hugged him. “The most important things in life have nothing to do with grades. That’s not who you are. You earned the Bobcat Award with your character. You look at it and remember that, that’s what counts.”
He sniffled and smiled at me.
I think we like grades because they are numbers that are easy to get, and quantify achievement. As grown-ups, I think we still look to numbers to calculate our self-worth: the numbers on our paycheck, our bank account, our Facebook page. But character is harder to measure. I hope I can grow in the fruit of the spirit and points of the scout law along with my children, even though I will never get a number for them.