When I was a Sophomore in high school, I was assigned a research paper that was to make up a percentage of my overall English grade. I purchased a sizable stack of index cards per instructions and immediately set to work filling them in. As I sat surveying the small mountain of ridiculous index cards growing steadily taller on my bedroom floor, I decided to weigh the matter a little more carefully.
I considered the grade that I had in the class at the time (an “A”) and subtracted the percentage of the research paper from that grade to see what would happen. Nothing too horrible. I came to the conclusion that I was willing to accept a slightly lower grade rather than go through the pains of putting together a huge paper that I was not in the least interested in writing. Since that was the only research paper I was ever asked to write in high school, I graduated without that particular pleasure. I also advanced easily to the honors English class in my Junior and Senior years and earned college credit on my AP English exam.
Underachiever. The term plagued me. It meant that the grade did not match the potential. So much talent. So wasted. Oh, the hallway discussions that I had with my teachers! If only they knew that I really, really didn’t care about grades. I just wanted to get out.
I recall as a 16-year old imagining in class that my plaid uniform skirt was glued to the desk chair, hoping to mentally decrease the intensity of my desire to flee. If I couldn’t flee, by virtue of being stuck, than perhaps I wouldn’t think on it as much and wouldn’t be as miserable.
Art class was one place I thought I’d like to be. I dreamed of attending a prestigious art school after graduation. But my classmates considered it a blow off class and acted accordingly. Many labeled themselves “dumb” at art and were graded according to the teacher’s relative perception of effort. So they continued to make it a joke. During class, these students were loud and constantly making a rude thing of a lovely idea.
Once, I spent three hours on a small art homework assignment. Stippling. I chose a difficult subject, labored over it, and neglected my more academic subjects so that I could complete enough to call it a composition. It was only worth 15 points. I had given more than I had time to give and knew I had done good work. The paper came back to me two days later with a B+ on it and the comment “So disappointed that you didn’t give this more time. Excellent work clearly done at the last minute. What work you have done here is worth an A+. I’m docking you a letter grade for not showing me a bigger composition and greater effort.”
A couple weeks later, I did my art homework during study hall 30 minutes before it was due. I received an A+ with the remark “Brilliant!” Lesson learned? Three hours is not worth the 15 (or fewer) points. So I became an underachiever in art, voted “Most Artistic” female of my graduating class… with nothing to show for it. I remember my art teacher sighing at me. Telling me how frustrating it was for her to see my talent wasted. And then walking away. Wasted. I’m a waste. Just let me out of here.
High school for me became much more about learning how to get through a system than about getting a great liberal arts education. The deck seemed stacked against me in so many ways. I was stuck in the inanity for four years… and so I accepted mediocrity and that grating label of “underachiever.” They were right. I was capable of so much more. But not there… in that place.
I knew a number of students who had a lesser grasp of material than I did but who earned better grades than I. One of them paid me $50 to write a paper for him (since I was an “honor” student). Which is why he got better grades than I did. He just found a way to do it that overcame his lack of ability and drive. I guess I just didn’t care as much.
I went to school because I could not go to volleyball/track practice unless I went to class. I wasn’t really a bad kid. I cared about people. I had a lot of ideas and creativity. I thought life was interesting. I had friends. I was on student council. I won some awards. But inside I was screaming to get out. When graduation day finally came, my friends all cried and talked about the best years of their lives. I was startled and thought: Good grief! I sure hope not! No tears even threatened to fall from my eyes… and I am a crier by nature.
Goodbye, ugly walls. Goodbye, mean kids. Goodbye, unhappy teachers. Goodbye, boring. Goodbye, underachievers, overachievers, mobile unit kids, nerds, jocks, preps, stoners. Goodbye, labels. Goodbye, prison. Goodbye, moral cesspool. Goodbye, fear.
I went to a private college-prep co-ed Catholic high school. Where drug addict students were extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, where religion teachers mocked the faith, where sexual harassment was frighteningly real, constant and ignored. A “good” school where I learned little of academic worth but a lot about “dog eat dog” and how bad I am at quick comebacks. Where some teachers partied as hard as the students and laughed about it in class. Where getting through the day without some depraved idiot telling me what color underwear I was wearing (because he stood at the bottom of the stairwell to find out) was a victory. Where purity is trashed and no one cares. Where drama is king and maturity is scarce.
This is one of a hundred reasons that we homeschool: We can take the garbage out of “education” and give the student the power and freedom to actually learn.
An important thing I have learned as a home educator is that education is not the transmission of one person’s knowledge to another… education is something that an individual does for himself. I cannot educate my students if they do not choose to be educated. I know that from my extensive firsthand experience of watching frustrated teachers throw much education against my brick wall of obstinacy. Some brilliant people make horrible teachers because they do not understand what it means to teach. And they do not understand why some children resist learning. Sometimes I hear parents talk about their underachieving teenagers. I listen to their frustration and concern and can sympathize as a parent… but I feel for the kids even more. Maybe they are living what I lived and just need someone to get them out.
My feeling about school was intensely negative. But it was my world. There were no other options. There was no freedom. And if it was hell to me… well, I still had to get up everyday and try to focus on academics and achievement. Like trying to paint a beautiful portrait … while sitting in a tiny, leaky boat… in the middle of a hurricane.
If I could attend high school all over again, I think I would be even more miserable than I was the first time. I would be more educated, wiser, more mature, more creative, more passionate, more faith-filled, more disciplined… and all of those improvements would make me even more desperate to escape. I don’t think I could fit back into that box without ugly consequences. I’m sure that if my husband gave me grades on my wifely and motherly duties that I would quickly find my “underachiever” label again. Thankfully, I no longer work for grades and labels.
There are days when I just know that my daily grade is a big, fat F. Mercifully, God doesn’t record it. After Confession, he doesn’t even remember it. His name is Mercy. I get a new page every day. And my label?