My mother saved all my report cards. When I retrieved them from the attic, only grade 8 was missing. They are tall documents, sheathed in a coarse, brown envelope. And they speak for me as a student: mostly A’s with a smattering of Bs. Once I got a C- on a history final exam the year my brother Mark was born.
Aside from letter grades A – F (No S’s, N’s or U’s in the 1950s), there is a full page of my elementary school report card devoted to behavior, including attitude toward school work, recitation, and conduct. In second grade, Miss Longenecker checked the box for “Gives Up too Easily.” I was beyond surprised. I was stunned that my teacher who was also my aunt would think that I was a quitter. What made her think that, I wondered. Did I throw down my pencil when I couldn’t do arithmetic? Or start bawling? The next marking period, the box for “Shows improvement” was checked.
In 5th grade negative check-marks showed up for my conduct. Imagining my teacher Mrs. Elsie Kilhefner would not notice or care, I whispered, earning the tick beside the box “Whispers too much.” The report cards following show I whispered constantly, every once in a while showing a tendency to reform my chatty ways.
Of the 23 ways behavior could be described on these old-fashioned report cards most were negative. Only three indicate something positive, one for each category: very commendable (attitude), very satisfactory (recitation), and very good (conduct). The adage “Children are to be seen and not heard” was prominent in the adult-centered society of the 50s. Not one teacher that I remember told us we were special and destined for greatness.
Since then American culture has leaned more toward the child-centered. In the 1970s my children Crista and Joel heard Mr. Rogers tell them on TV “You are my Friend, You are Special.”
They sang along with the Gaither tune: I am a Promise, I am a possibility. I am a promise with a capital “P” with one stanza that shouts: “You can climb the high mountain and cross the broad sea . . . .”
In 2012 David McCullough Jr. made a 12 3/4-minute speech to the graduating class of Wellesley High School in Massachusetts before a group of privileged, upper-class teens and their perceived-to-be “helicopter” parents. The speech went viral on YouTube. Entitled “You are Not Special,” McCullough argues that if everyone is special, then no one is.
Other rich points:
1. We have come to love our accolades more than our achievements.(Don’t go to Guatemala so you can impress admissions at Harvard or Yale. Go because you want to serve the people there.)
2. “Selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself.”
3. Climb the mountain so you can see the world, not so that world can see you.
In other words, through service to others, stand tall – like my report card from days of yore.
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