“Why Don’t You See Those Rocks?!”

I remember clusters of days in high school when I’d head home, quickly and resolutely, to check the mailbox. I vaguely remember days (probably elementary school) when I’d be given an envelope in class to take home for my parents to sign. It was report card time, and that was always a little stressful. Even for someone who is or was a good student it’s a time of second-guessing and anxious what-ifs.

I spent the last 14 years dealing with a couple of public school kids. And I’m admitting right now, I was often an arm-waving, sputtering, self-contradictory blowhard. It seems like I spent several days surrounding the beginning of every semester contriving new and unworkable schemes to get my sons to be the best they could be. Always with the best intentions mind you, but I don’t think any plan really worked. There was no carrot shiny enough, nor a stick sharp enough to get those two to change how they went about the business of getting through school. Or more to the point, to get them to be the students I thought they should be.

I think anyone who raises children to adulthood and doesn’t achieve an advanced level of self-awareness wasn’t paying attention. I realize that when it came to my kids’ educations, I was stuck in one gear. I couldn’t grasp the fact that my high-minded and lofty speeches about my job of being the advocate for their future selves was finding no purchase. I’d walk away from a conversation feeling I’d really gotten through to them with talk of unused potential and passionate self-discovery.

I think now that while I wasn’t wrong, I wasn’t reading my audience. In those moments I lacked the self awareness required to navigate past my self-righteousness and see the truth in how things were working. When I was a kid, or really anyone older than 26 was a kid, those benchmarks for our performance happened only a handful of times a school year. There was ample room to screw up, and then repair our grades. I wasn’t giving the boys that kind of room. For those of you who aren’t familiar with nautical terms, let me explain leeway. Leeway is the space in which a ship is able to operate. Leeway was used to describe the room a ship had between itself and land. So picture a ship in a storm, open sea on one side, and rocky cliffs on the other. The more leeway, the safer the passage. I was giving the boys no leeway. Because I could, and because it seemed responsible, I’d check their grades every other day. I’d sweat every missing assignment, every poor grade. I’d confront them with up-to-date printouts. I was boxing them in, with no room to work through anything. I certainly never gave any thought to how I would’ve responded to that scrutiny when I was a kid. I think I would’ve suffered from that level of oversight.

So what’s the solution? I’m not really sure. I think in a perfect world we keep checking that website, looking for things to be concerned about and things to celebrate. But we should be very careful about how we react, if at all. I should have let them work it out. Maybe it would have worked better for us if I’d just made sure they were checking their grades and then walked away, allowing them to manage themselves. That certainly would have made for more productive conversations. We have to give them time to work through their issues, to repair their mistakes. Though even that gives me a headache. I mean, how can you watch that crappy grade get cemented in place? How can you not point it out? It just sits there, mocking. Judging. I hate it’s guts.

I wish I’d swallowed the impulse to confront and discuss every grade. I wish I’d been comfortable in the knowledge that my sons occasionally screwed stuff up. More certain of the lack of correlation between that quiz grade and their future success. In almost every way, it was more about me than them.

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