Recently, while cleaning out various rooms of his house, my dad came across a folder full of my old report cards. He gave them to me, and at first I just quickly looked through a few and laughed at some of the notes from teachers. The more time I spent looking though, the more a strange feeling shifted for me. I absolutely knew I had never been a great student – especially in high school. I was not what you would call a motivated student, unless the subject matter was interesting to me, and I struggled with math, a lot. Just before my senior year of high school, it was suggested I be tested for learning disabilities, and lo and behold, a math related disability was diagnosed. I remember being angry – angry that this was discovered just as I was entering my last year of high school, which made it feel useless. I was angry that I had struggled for so many years feeling stupid, and inadequate (not because of my parents, thankfully) and that there had, in fact, been a reason all along! Because of this diagnosis I was granted additional time on tests, and was allowed additional time on even standardized tests like the SAT and ACT. I had already taken both the SAT and SAT II at this point, and had zero desire to re-sit the exams, even with additional time for th math portions, and the morning of the ACT I had a huge meltdown and declared it pointless, and that I wouldn’t go. I didn’t end up taking the ACT, and honestly, it didn’t really matter in the long run.
I was struck, however, by how many of my teachers mentioned a challenge in remaining focused on activities. Today, I think most elementary school teachers would recognize some of the symptoms I had of learning disabilities earlier. 30 years ago, however, I was a good, quiet kid, who didn’t cause problems, and just “wasn’t a math person.” Teachers noted that I “demonstrate consistent effort,” but my grades very rarely reflected that effort when it came to math. My mom moved me from public school into Catholic school in 3rd grade because my 2nd grade teacher told her not to worry about my inability to perform basic addition and subtraction without the assistance of a number line because “they’ll all have calculators,” by the time she’s an adult. Needless to say, this was the wrong answer for my mom.
Because of my quiet behavior in class, my rule following in general, and I guess just an overall vibe I gave off, most of my classmates assumed I was a really strong student, someone who got good grades. Classmates were regularly surprised to learn I was in the “remedial” groups for math and science, and I remember vividly in middle school, a girl I was desperately trying to be besties with, groused “wow, you’re really bad at math, I thought for sure you were smarter,” while trying to copy my work in class.
In elementary school, I definitely hung out with the brainy kids – we spent our recess time creating performances for our classmates (totally unappreciated) and writing what I can really only describe as L.M. Montgomery fanfiction. We were decidedly uncool. Example – one year, our music teacher informed our class that we had two options for our final grade in her class. We could form a group and choreograph a dance to “Latin” music, or perform in the school’s talent show. My friends and I passed on the dance and instead performed “Matchmaker” from Fiddler on the Roof for our fellow Catholic School peers. There was definitely some laughing directed at us for this enthusiastic rendition of a musical theater classic.
Now that I work at a high school, not too dissimilar from my all girls’ Catholic experience, I have a much better understanding of the grading structure, the importance placed on grades, that I most certainly lacked when I attended high school. My high school GPA never once broke a 3.0 – in fact, one quarter my senior year, I believe, I was hovering around a 1.5. Yikes. When I have shared this with people today, as an adult, they are shocked that I was such a poor student. Like my elementary and middle school peers, they assumed based on the way I present myself now, that I was possibly an honors student. Reconciling my own vision of myself and how our intelligence is measured leaves me struggling a bit with the seemingly lazy, disinterested, unmotivated student I was twenty some years ago. Looking back, I can clearly see the un and then under diagnosed depression and anxiety I struggled with, I see the impact of the very late diagnosed learning disability, and I can’t help but wonder if all of those notes about poor small motor development, difficulty staying focused, aren’t symptoms of either the depression and anxiety or even ADHD.
I ended up applying to and being accepted at a decent number of colleges, California State University campuses as well as a couple of private schools. Somehow, with my shitty grades, not great SAT scores, and what I can only imagine were middling at best, essays, colleges were still willing to accept me. I ended up taking a much more circuitous route to completing a Bachelor’s Degree, one that took me around 18 years all told, so, truly all the trappings of traditional high school and college applications ended up being a moot point. Why though, after so many years, would I allow grades, which obviously were mostly meaningless in the long run, hold so much weight over me? I’m not sure, to be honest. Maybe it’s because while I understood that I wasn’t a good student, seeing it in black and white after all these years feels like a bit of a slap in the face. A reminder of those feelings of inadequacy that haunted me during my years in school.
All this said, while I may not have reflected in my grades the knowledge I received in high school, I can see much more clearly the impact my rigorous education had on me as an adult. I am a good reader, a strong writer, I am able to communicate in a highly effective manner that many people I know who were strong students, struggle with. Perhaps the greatest lessons of all come from the confidence instilled in me by the community at my high school. The understanding that each student had the ability to reach her own personal excellence – even if I fell short of that in the short term. It’s flattering to realize that the knowledge and understanding I have as an adult is shared in such a way that people believe I was if not an A student, than certainly not the C-D student I actually was. But, it all makes me think about the value we place on grades and the weight we attribute to them – how we allow them to define our own sense of self. Twenty years out of high school, and having been through an undergraduate program designed for working adults, I am reminded regularly that who we were at 18 is not who we have to be at 28 or 38 or beyond. Maybe it’s time for me to put down the weights I have assigned my shitty grades in school, and realize that I managed to learn the really important lessons anyway – and apply those to my daily life and work, which ultimately is the goal, isn’t it?