My son is crestfallen. For weeks, he’s been studying for a university exam. He’s spent hour upon hour bent over mathematical equations that are deeply complex and far from pleasurable. Until the results came back, he was hopeful that he’d nailed it this time. His dad and I boosted that hope with encouraging comments like, “You’ve worked so hard,” and “You’ve got this!” Then the results came back and his grade, in the 40 per cent range, spoke much louder, indicating a weak understanding, if any, of the material in question.
He called us from a campus on the far side of the country, deeply saddened and firm in the impression that his grade represents who he is. In his mind, it’s not just one number on one test in one subject, but a digit that says “limited potential,” “unintelligent,” “going nowhere” and “unable to succeed despite investing
100 per cent effort.”
With a quarter century of life experience more than he, I know this digit is quite meaningless in the big picture. If he fails one course, he can take it again, or use it as an impetus to change directions and refocus on a course that’s better suited to him. This one number says nothing about his intelligence, kindness or his ability to succeed in life. And yet, he sees it as an overarching judgment that roars: “you are not good enough.”
It’s a trap we fall into, this perception of grades wielding the power to define who we are and what we’re capable of. We give those numbers a weight and meaning that’s disproportionate to what they truly represent, internalizing a message about our abilities that’s inconsistent with what we can achieve.
In high school in Cape Town, my teachers were unanimous that I was a 65 per cent student. Across all my subjects, regardless of effort or talent, my grades remained firmly in a range that said “mediocrity,” “OK but not great” and “far from brilliant.” I watched in envy as my best friend consistently scored digits in the 80 per cent range. I took this to mean that she was smarter than I and that 65 per cent was simply who I was and what I could expect.
The school went one step further to reinforce this message. It divided our year into three segments: the super-smart, known in our slang as the “boff class,” the mediocre majority, which was the camp into which I fell, and those that were struggling, sneeringly referred to in our slang as “doff.” We all knew where we stood and in the social environment of high school, and our place on the caste system informed who we should admire and what we could do.
One of the many good things to occur as a result of leaving Cape Town for Saskatoon, my first stop in Canada, was the recognition that I’d been wrong about my potential. My scores immediately shot up into the 80s, landing me scholarships at university, a ranking on the dean’s list and the confidence to head to graduate school for two successive master’s degrees.
While basking in pride at my newfound achievements, I pondered the randomness of those earlier grades that had pinned me down for so long. They did not represent me. They were simply a series of unfounded and incorrect assumptions about what I was capable of.
With three kids in school and one in college, grades remain the yardstick by which their progress is measured and their potential evaluated. No better system has been created to assess ability. Yet as I try to lift my son’s spirits and remind him to keep perspective, I’m sharply aware that we give grades much more power and meaning than they deserve.
They do not represent the whole person, nor the bright, promising future waiting just beyond the classroom door. They’re just one individual assessment in one subject, a tiny blip in a life in which achievement and potential are limited only by our perceptions of what we can do.
We cannot allow our children to be dragged into the doldrums by their grades, nor to measure themselves by these digits alone. Grades can be a useful yardstick by which to gauge understanding of a curriculum. But that’s all they are, and often, they’re neither accurate nor predictive of the possibilities ahead.