I remember my first introduction to grades vividly. I was 4, and my sister 6 – the older, wiser girl that I looked up to and adored. As she came home from school each day, she would draw up little worksheets for me so we could play school. She was the teacher, of course, and I her willing student. I would trace and copy letters of the alphabet and she would grade them (or put me in the corner for misbehavior).
She wrote a big “A” on top of my first worksheet. The next one wasn’t quite so good, and it merited an “A-.” “Tut tut,” she shook her head and explained in her worldly wise way, as only an experienced first grader with a baby sister can. “You don’t ever want to get less than an A. A+ is a better, but A- is worse.”
Ahh, now I understood. In school you could earn one of three grades. A+ for good, A- for bad, and A for all right. The next year, I entered kindergarten still carrying this notion. Seriously, it was a few years before I realized grades existed below A-. Gasp! By then, my self-perception as an A student was thoroughly ingrained. I considered grades below A unthinkable (and A- was always suspect). I simply HAD to make straight A’s.
That first encounter set the stage for me. It’s my first memory of of a conscious decision about who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. I resolved at age 4 that I would not make less than an A in school. I graduated high school and college as a straight A student, with nothing less than a sneaky A- to mar a record. Now, clearly, more factors were involved than one encounter with my sister’s less-than-thorough explanation of the grading system. Life is more complex than that. But what a high and rigid goal I’d set for myself so young, and without any clue of the full scope of the situation. At the time, I just wanted to earn praise from my big sister.
That decision and that unforgiving goal brought me a fair amount of stress over the years. I remember my 10th grade teacher shaking her head in exasperation at me as I argued passionately, on the brink of tears, that an essay question had been marked down unfairly (the essay had been given an A, but it was too low of an A for me). I remember one of my few disciplinary encounters in high school was a detention I earned by arguing vehemently and publically that my government teacher was acting unconstitutionally by changing the rules for grading an assignment after we’d already started (we were studying ex post facto laws at the time). So many knotted stomachs and moments of terror that were not understood by classmates who would’ve been thrilled to get my grades. But I never compared myself to them, only to my own self-image as a straight A student.
I admit that my quest for academic excellence was not always noble. I sought the grade, not the learning that accompanied it…the reward, not the journey.
Clearly, my self-perception as an A student brought me success, too. A bucket of medals and a pile of certificates proclaim my educational acheivements, and the scholarships gave me a free ride through college. I never lacked for academic acclaim. I still benefit from my past studies and the knowledge acquired during them.
My point in writing is NOT to complain about how grades ruined me. I may compulsively research topics and carefully edit my casual emails and study for Scrabble games like they were final exams, but I actually think I escaped permanent, serious harm.
My point is simply to acknowledge the powerful influence that grades have on young personalities and young hearts, not just young minds. A child who realizes in kindergarten that he is a C student may take years to overcome that view of himself, if he ever does. A young child who believes she is an A student steers herself into years of anxiety and the constant threat of failure. Either way, children at that tender age are too young to be gelling their self-image around such an arbitrary and subjective standard. They should be free to explore and enjoy the adventure of learning and living.
I never gave my children grades in kindergarten or elementary school. Homeschooling made that possible. Middle school is quite early enough for those to creep into their lives. By that time, self-images have formed based on reality, based on experiences, based on years of encouragement and room to take risks and fail without permanent harm. By that age, they know themselves as readers, as scientists, as artists well enough to gauge their view of themselves healthily against a singled grade on a test.
Grades should be wielded with care for the strength of the force they can be.