Let me tell you about all the school work we’ve been doing around here the last three weeks.
[insert cricket sound here]
That’s right. Nada.
First there was fall break for all my kids’ friends. We forsook dictation in favor of all day playdates. Then there was the homeschool play. We forsook everything else in favor of driving back and forth to rehearsal.
Once upon a time, getting this far behind would have caused me cataclysmic anxiety. But this go-round I’m trying to stay focused on the big picture, my real reason for homeschooling: re-gluing our family. Also, my friend Maggie told me I’m not behind, I’m just “unschooling.” That helps. I like having a name for things. It makes me feel official.
But with all this “unschooling” I almost missed a landmark occasion in our public school system. Last week, thousands of students in Nashville delivered the first report cards of the year into the hands of their parents. Some parents cheered, some parents fretted, some yelled, and some added the paper to the stack of mail that will be overlooked until sometime after Christmas.
I’ve got a complicated relationship with report cards. We go way back.
I was a great student. I mean, I remember next to nothing of anything I ever learned in school, but I sure did get good grades. I even got straight As while submitting my homework from a psychiatric hospital. Because, you know, that’s the point of being locked up with a bunch of adolescents on suicide watch: proving that you’ve got it all together and that you can still achieve. Those grades were my assurance that I really was okay, that, despite all evidence to the contrary, I was good enough.
After graduation I went out chasing gold stars. Imagine my shock when I discovered that real life doesn’t work that way. Yeah, you might get the job or land the deal, but you might not. And no one is handing out medals for the real battles you fight every day; the tough work of just showing up, choosing kindness when apathy is so much easier, learning to say, “I changed my mind.”
But lo and behold, just as I was starting to become very discouraged with this new no-grade system, my oldest daughter started kindergarten. Hallelujah! Sweet relief. Now I had someone to tell me how we were doing, how we stacked up to the masses. By which, of course, I mean, how I stacked up as a mother. And Zoë, bless her heart, had been perfectly groomed for the role. She’d been carefully taught how to behave, how to avoid embarrassing me or herself, how to please all the people. She chewed with her mouth closed, and raised her hand, and colored neatly inside the lines. I was in heaven. I could feel us winning.
But then, in Zoë’s first grade year, I started getting these strange notes from my son’s preschool teachers. It turned out that Grey didn’t like to follow directions. He wasn’t interested in making handprint turkeys, opting instead to cover the entire paper with some cross between Jackson Pollock and finger painting. He wouldn’t line up nicely. Sometimes he even pushed his friends. I was aghast. Of course I’d seen behavior like this at home, but frankly, it was the same kind of defiant stuff Zoë had done when she was three. I assumed he’d straighten up in public. He didn’t. He missed the “make a good impression” memo.
We began homeschooling when Grey entered kindergarten. (More here) The toddler behavior had resolved itself, but I’d managed to instill in him a deep desire to please without being able to kill off the insatiable curiosity that often pulled him off task. I knew it was a deadly combination. Kindergarten would eat him alive and he’d label himself a bad kid before the end of the first week. But even at home, Grey was totally unmotivated by sticker charts or rewards. I struggled for months to teach him to read, offering all kinds of bribes with no success. One day he picked up a book way beyond the level we were laboring over, and began speed reading out loud just so I’d let him go outside already.
Suddenly I got it. I’d been trying to offer gold stars and good grades to a kid who couldn’t care less. I was trying to buy his enthusiasm, finance his learning, with the currency of my self-esteem. I’d have had more luck hocking hamburgers in Calcutta. But still, I was baffled. How was I going to get him to prove himself? I mean, I knew he could do the work, and he knew he could do the work, but how were we going to show everyone else he could do the work?
And then I cried. Big, ugly, ashamed tears. I’d just failed Parenting 101. I’d broken the cardinal rule I’d set for myself: Do not lay the responsibility for your self-esteem on your children’s shoulders.
What if he hadn’t been able to do the work? Would I have loved him any less? Of course not. What about those friends of mine whose children will never learn to read, whose children will never even learn to speak? Do those parents love their children any less? Of course not. As parents we all rejoice in our children’s successes and fret over their challenges. The specifics may be different, but the feelings are the same. The problem wasn’t with Grey, it was with me.
I’d been lucky. I’d been given two healthy children and I’d taken that gift and warped it into a gold star for myself. As though I deserved it. As though ANYONE deserves it. By trying to get Grey to “prove himself” what I was really doing was trying to keep that star shiny. God help me.
I’ve since come to realize that report cards are good for exactly ONE thing. They may let you know if your child is struggling and needs extra support. Then again, they may not. After all, my own high school transcript would not alert you to the fact that I took half of my junior classes on a locked ward. Report cards do not tell you how good a job you are doing as a parent. They do not tell you whether your child will be wildly successful or still living at home at 45. They most certainly do not tell you whether you or your children are worthy of love and belonging. That’s already a done deal. That grade was posted the day you were born.
We all got an A+.