Report Cards

It’s 10 am. I’m sitting on my deck in the early summer sunshine, dog on my feet, laptop on my knees, and coffee in my hand. For the first time in months, I can focus on my work without worrying that at some point, my work-groove will be broken by having to rescue Puck from a bad day at school.

School is DONE. It’s summer.

My kids are still upstairs, lolling in their beds in their pyjamas. They haven’t actually been out of their pyjamas for two days. They might have brushed their teeth recently, but that’s doubtful. And given the number of granola bar wrappers on their floors, they probably should be brushing. I should probably throw a vegetable their way. It’s only four days since school ended, and they’ve essentially gone feral.

I don’t mind that they’re embracing sloth. At times, I have Pinterest-induced guilt that I should make them DO things…Clean your room! Go for a bike ride! Practice basic hygiene!…but in reality, I’m happy to let them do nothing for a while. This year has been hard on all of us, and we need to decompress. For me, at least, that might take all summer. 

In the past, the end of the school year came gently. It was a happy pause in a routine that melted, like a popsicle left on the front steps, into sticky and slow summer days. This year’s end-of-school was more serious, more absolute. Puck was done at the school he’s gone to for the past six years. He’s off to a new school in September, one that focuses exclusively on kids with learning disabilities. It’s exactly what he needs, and he has no qualms about leaving his old school behind, as he’s come to associate it with bad experiences. For me, though, walking out of the door with him for the final time felt like a failure. It felt like we had nothing to show for his time there. He was already gone, as far as the staff was concerned. There were no hugs for him, no wishes for a great summer. No “see you next year!”. There were carefully averted eyes and a hurry to move along down the hall.

It felt as though we’d been fired.

This was uncharted territory for me, this experience of school as a battleground. School had always been a place where I felt I belonged. The last day of school for me was always bittersweet— it was the end of a routine I enjoyed. But it was also “grading day”, which were good days, for me. I was a grade junkie. Good grades were what I did. I wasn’t athletic, or musically talented. I was too socially awkward to be popular. I was only pretty in a non-threatening kind of way. Good grades were it, then. They were my thing. Report cards were a written testament to the one area of my life I felt some mastery over.

I’ve relied a bit too much on other people’s assessments of me over the years. Even outside of school, and away from report cards, I put too much stock in how others thought about me. The pressure to overachieve came only from me, and I could never live up to my own expectations. Was my work good enough? Did I look the way people expected me to look? Was I conforming to others’ expectations? I’ve burned a lot of mental energy (and mental health) on ticking off those boxes on someone else’s report card. It fed my anxiety. It fuelled an eating disorder. Over time, I’ve learned that other people’s opinions of how I’m living my life are only…opinions. I had to learn to wean myself off the notion of ‘good grades’.

That was one of the reasons I chose the school Daisy and Puck have been going to: it doesn’t give written report cards to kids in elementary school. This was hard for me, at first. Even with thorough discussions with teachers, part of me needed to see their comments in writing. Without the report card, I felt like I only had part of the picture.

By Puck’s second year of school, though, I was glad there were no report cards. I was glad we were spared years of seeing in writing just how poorly he was doing. And then this spring, we were confronted with the mother of all report cards: Puck’s full 25-page psycho-educational assessment. If annual report cards telling us he was failing  would have felt like the pinch of a flu shot (perhaps helpful, with temporary pain), the psycho-educational assessment felt like abdominal surgery — necessary, breathtakingly painful, and profound.

It’s hard to see your child described in stark, objective, psychological terms. Deficiencies. Diagnoses. Low percentile scores. As a former grade junkie, it was a horrible nightmare. As a mother, it was…a horrible nightmare. When something is there in writing, you can’t hide from it. It’s hard not to let the words shape you and define you. They become part of that thing we were taught to fear at school: our ‘permanent record’.

Around the same time as Puck was undertaking the assessment, Daisy was getting ready to take her ballet exams. Daisy is a dancer, and living with her these days is like being an extra in Fame. There are leg warmers. There is drama.  Fame costs, and she’s paying in sweat. The annual ballet exams are a huge deal to her, and she gets incredibly anxious about them. And every year, I have to talk her through it with the same speech: the exam mark is one person’s subjective opinion of how you performed certain criteria for fifteen minutes one morning in April. It does not define your worth as a dancer, or as a person. You are so much more than those fifteen minutes.

Daisy did well. She’s been accepted into a professional dance program, and is learning to manage her pre-exam anxiety. She’s in middle school now, so she received her first real report card this year. She was anxious about it, but before opening the envelope, she shrugged and said, “This will just describe how I did this year. It’s not who I am as a person.”

Isn’t it awesome when you realize your kids have actually been listening to you, and have taken lessons to heart? Isn’t it even more awesome when you realize you need to learn for yourself the lessons you’ve been giving  them?

Puck is so much more than this one year. It’s been terrible, and disappointing. But it will not define him. The diagnoses and analyses will shape him, but they will not define him. They provide clues to who he is in the school environment, but they don’t capture who is really is. They don’t describe how funny he is, how kind, how he loves animals and his family, how he readily tells his big sister that he loves her. This year is one small episode in his life’s journey. Next year’s story may be different.

The report cards that matter are the reflections we need to have at the end of each day, when we ask ourselves if we’ve done the best we can do. Have we loved each other enough? Have we been kind to ourselves? Did we leave the world a better place? There is no written record for this. The assessments are written in our souls.

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