Good Enough

When I was in high school, Good Enough was good enough. We did our best – and sometimes not – and we did well. Most kids in my middle-class high school were on the College Prep track; we knew a few in the “non-College Prep” classes, and we understood they struggled; we knew a few who took Honors/AP classes, and we understood they might just be Too Smart.

College Prep classes fit the majority, and College Prep classes prepared the Super Motivated to take AP tests as available. Those who took and passed AP tests could get a GPA boost, but AP-specific classes were not the norm, as there was no reason to offer college credit to high school students. 3.0-4.0 was A-OK! And most of us went to good colleges.

Fast Forward a generation…6352769082_2fe37679b6_b

It was too late to drop by the time we realized Teen – now a junior with Pressure ON! – was struggling. He could have taken an easier class. Had he wanted to, he also could have taken this class at the local community college. Kids who fail classes at our High School receive A’s at our local Community College. I recently asked Why?, and was told that the High School has to keep up its standards of being in the Top 1% of schools in the country, while the Community College has to pass the Average Student.

Anyone see a problem there?

We signed him up for professional tutoring, and it has helped. On his own – and without our knowledge – he has attended twice-a-week on-campus tutoring. He studied HARD for the last test, and he felt confident.

He failed the test.

Dismayed, he went at lunch to talk to the teacher. She wouldn’t show him the test, wouldn’t talk with him about how he’d gone wrong. She said, “You do work for other classes in my class.” Once, early on. She said, “You come in late.” Last week, his car broke down; this morning, the alarms failed us. He has apologized; she hasn’t accepted.

What to do about a teacher who won’t meet a student part-way with compassion?

Teen has learned that first impressions, and subsequent impressions, matter. Studying matters. Working his tail off in a subject that stumps him matters, and one might expect that taking the initiative to approach a teacher – teenager to adult, no easy match – should matter. He did his best, and he got shot down.

Head hung low he said, “It’s only my future. I guess I won’t go to A Good College.”

His college counselor said that, without a 4.2 GPA, admission to a University of California or California State school will be a long shot4.2 is now what it takes to be noticed and accepted for in-state California colleges? How many students take how many AP classes to average an above average GPA?

The norm is no longer The Norm. Good Enough has died.

Last spring the four schools in our high school district took the Stanford Survey of Adolescent School Experiences, the “stress test.” The goal is to work with schools to create a less stressful and more engaging school environment for students. [Read more here].

The results highlighted the dire reality that our students feel stressed, exhausted, and stuck in a rat wheel. Surprisingly, it’s not that they are so caught up in their daily school work. Rather, students see the hyper-competitive culture in which they are growing up, and they’re grasping at straws trying to differentiate themselves. And yet the college counselor made it clear: the colleges no longer care about differentiation, just that 4.+ GPA.

I’m confident Teen will go to college. He’s a smart kid, inaccurately assessed in the wrong circus arena. Now, if his class took place outside – up a hill, in a tree – somewhere he could touch the subject and explore it for himself; if assignments weren’t one-size-fits-poorly; if high schools had majors and he could focus his interests like he will be able to in college; well, then he’d have that stellar GPA. He will, someday. He’s going to surprise himself.

People move to our town for the schools, and rightfully so. We are fortunate to have access to an impressive educational system. But just as in people, strengths can also be weaknesses. The lessons they intend to teach might, for now, have less to do with English and algebra and history and way more to do with perseverance, conflict resolution, and staying true to self when others apply ill-fitting labels. These lessons are hard-won with plenty of bruises and at least a few scrapes. They hurt. And in the end, they’ll prove to be more valuable than a GPA, more than good enough.



Tonight was Open House at Tween’s elementary school, our last elementary school Open House ever.

One year ago we toured Tween’s class in under five minutes – his classwork hardly represented, his teacher avoiding eye contact, my stomach in knots. We moved quickly from his 4th grade classroom to the 5th grade classrooms. We closely inspected work by kids we didn’t know; we watched how the teachers interacted with students and parents; we talked with parents about their child’s experience.

At home I began composing a letter to the school principal along these (much abbreviated) lines: “Tween has had a difficult year in Room 3 as he and the teacher have not achieved the best ‘fit.’ We toured the 5th grade classrooms and noticed this about Room 4’s teacher and that about Room 6’s teacher, all good things just maybe not the best for Tween, while Room 5’s teacher greeted him by name with a warm hug and a compliment. We know we’re not supposed to request a teacher, but we need a win: please place Tween in Room 5.”

Two weeks later, Principal announced that Room 5 Teacher would be moving to the middle school. Ouch.

So we prayed and prayed some more. One more year like 4th grade would put Tween in jeopardy. Day after day he came home deflated and defeated, intimidated by his teacher, our bright boy telling us he was “obviously not smart.”

At summer’s end, we got word that Tween had been assigned “the new Room 5 teacher.” Hallelujah! The Powers That Be had listened. And our hopes have been rewarded.dapper

First day of the 2014-15 school year, this dapper-dressed man with a great big smile opened the door. Without having previously met any of his students, he shook their hands one-by-one and welcomed them by name into the classroom. The year is almost over and he hasn’t yet stopped welcoming his students.

Tonight Tween directed us to his desk topped with piles of his work. Atop the stack sat a survey about their experience this year. Favorite subject? Reading (of course). Most improved subject? Math (Yes! He has persevered and proven to himself that he can both work hard and succeed – a triumph!). Favorite activity? Science camp (no surprise). What will he remember most about 5th grade? “I will always remember my best teacher ever: Mr. Mathews.”

Cue the mommy waterworks. He loves his teacher, and the feeling seems to be mutual.

This dear man could hardly accept my thanks as he extolled the wonders of his class. They are sweet, and smart, and hardworking, yes, but he has clearly honored and encouraged them and steadily endeavored to bring out their best version of themselves.

Case in point: last week Tween gave his all on a science test-prep packet. Long packet + slow processing speed = frustrated Tween and incomplete homework. Still working on it early Friday, Grumpy Tween slammed the packet on the desk and declared: “I will just tell him I left it here!”

Commence parent-child conversation about honesty and lying, hard work, and the reason for his 504 plan which allows accommodations for situations exactly like this. He shoved the packet in his backpack.

Imagine my surprise as I unpacked his Friday folder to discover a note saying he had not turned in said packet. When Tween returned from baseball practice, I asked him to read the note aloud, and then explained that he’d be writing a note of apology. He burst into tears, terrified that exposing his dishonesty would cause his teacher to stop trusting him.

He wrote an email, not excusing but explaining best he could his frustration with the workload, the peer pressure at play, his own disorganization at having left the packet in his backpack in the breezeway and not in his binder where it belonged. “I am sorry that I lied under pressure. I should have been stronger than that.”

One day later – on a teacher’s Saturday at that – Tween received a graceful response, acknowledging the courage required to come clean and requesting that Tween live into the bravery required to tell the truth up front, whether to this teacher or any other. Tween read the response silently and immediately typed back-hit send:

“Thank you for replying. After I wrote this I thought that you would get mad at me and not trust me. Once I read this I felt reassured that you are the best teacher I’ve ever had. Thanks again!”

Teacher Appreciation Week appropriately wardrobed this guy

Teacher Appreciation Week appropriately wardrobed this guy

Tween has learned a lot this year, reading stacks of books, practicing math concepts, delving into the scientific method, even designing and printing a new invention on a 3D printer (seriously, how cool is that?). Those lessons will hold him in good stead as he moves on to middle school.

However, he has also learned lessons that will carry him far in life: saying sorry, facing failures, supporting friends, hard work, persistence, courage, laughter, positive attitude, even (dare I say?) the benefits of tidying up (whether he’ll ever overcome his embodiment of the Absent-Minded Professor remains to be seen).

I’ve felt weepy-silly this year as we run our last lap around elementary school. Tween can’t wait for middle school – no anxiety, all anticipation. He is ready for the next adventure. And tonight my heart overflows with gratitude for the gift of this teacher, this year, this miracle.

Thank you, Mr. Mathews!