I’ve never liked New Year’s Eve. It feels fake and forced. For me — a true nerd — beginnings and endings were always defined by the school year. September was for new intentions and possibilities. June was the end of a chapter, a frenzied season of field trips and prom and report cards and ‘grading day’, followed by a drowsy mental hibernation on the beaches of the Northumberland Strait.
I was a report card junkie. My friends were pretty, or popular, or athletic, or talented. I wasn’t those things. But I was smart, and grades became my validation and my drug. School was what I was good at, and report cards were my proof that I had value in the world.
Taking pride in your accomplishments is wonderful. But defining yourself through someone else’s evaluation of you, or by the awards you’ve won or any external validation, isn’t really healthy. That sort of praise or feedback can be fleeting. And when it’s gone…who are we? Who are we, if we are not the Brain, or the Athlete, or the Beauty? Who are we without our labels (Did The Breakfast Club teach us nothing?)?
School was easy for me, and I never had to work very hard (I might have done so much better if I’d actually put some effort into it!). The real world of adulting, alas, has not been that easy for me. I sometimes felt lost without report cards to rate me. If no one was telling me I was doing well, was I? As my anxiety and eating disorder took hold, I was sure I was failing in all aspects of life. I doubt there is a report card that would have helped me, and my quest for perfection probably would have convinced me that any positive feedback wasn’t valid, anyway.
Feedback changes out here in the real world. There are no marks to work for; no grading days when you move on to the next big thing. Oh sure, there are performance evaluations and promotions (or demotions) at work. There are the dreaded “We need to talk” assessments with partners. But for the most part — especially as parents — we’re just stumbling along, uncertain if we’re doing this right, or even what the benchmarks are. Just when we’ve mastered one aspect of life, everything changes. Our ability to adapt and keep up to what life throws at us may be the most important measure of our success, and I’m not sure that’s one that’s covered in most school curricula.
It’s taken a lot of work to understand who I am without a report card to tell me; to define my worth for myself, and to name success on my own terms.
That’s a lesson I wanted to share with my kids. I purposefully choose a school for Daisy and Puck that did not offer report cards for the elementary grades. I wanted them to be able to define who they were at school for themselves. But if my intention was to free them from dread of evaluations, or to build their self-esteem without focussing on grades, that intention backfired. Daisy is in middle school now, and started getting report cards last year. Her anxiety about what report cards would tell her about herself was huge, and she dreaded report card day. Puck began getting report cards at his new school this year, and was actually a bit oblivious to them. But then, he’s used to having professionals of all kinds, and society itself, weigh in with assessments of who he is and what he can (and cannot) do. In his opinion, a report card would just be another way to show how he falls short.
Daisy’s school finished last week. She’s in a professional dance training program, and struggled this year to balance academics with her training schedule. She asked me back in January if she could switch to a different school next year — one that will allow her the flexibility she needs to succeed in both academics and dance. She dreaded getting her final report card from her current school, knowing how much time she’d missed and how many assignments just didn’t get done. To her surprise, she did quite well. As is true for most of us, the criticism in her head was worse than what others can give her. As a dancer, she’s used to constant feedback and criticism. Although she’s quick to tell you how much she dislike hearing it, she’s learning to use feedback to improve her skills. But she fears the feedback, imagining the worst.
Today is Puck’s last day of school. There’ll be no surprises in his report card, as I’m in close contact with his teachers. In this first year at a school for kids with learning disabilities, he has thrived academically. It’s amazing the difference the right teachers and right approach have made. He is working above grade level, and actually enjoys it. He willingly does homework, and is so much more confident. He no longer feels like the ‘dumb’ kid, or the outsider in his class. He’s also thrived in the special classes that teach social skills, self-esteem and self-advocacy. He’s learned that he’s not just a label or an assessment. He’s learned not to give up just because something feels difficult. Still, he fears the report card. He has had years of being told that he doesn’t measure up at school, and that message doesn’t go away overnight. Like his sister, he fears the feedback, imagining the worst.
While I’m not as reliant on feedback to shape my view of myself these days, I usually don’t go looking for criticism. A few weeks ago, though, I took a big leap that involved actually inviting criticism. Once upon a time, I came very close to having a novel I’ve written accepted by a publisher. We went back and forth for many months, until finally, he said he wasn’t sure who it was for (I still have the email – he described the manuscript as “a Young Adult novel written for adults”. He thought this was a problem; I took it as a compliment). Stung and disappointed, I left the story to languish in my hard drive for almost seven years. This was the first and only publisher I’d approached. I know, right? ONE publisher. But the rejection hurt too much, and the feedback felt like I was branded on my forehead with a big glowing “You Suck” tattoo.
The story wouldn’t leave me alone, though. The characters showed up in my thoughts randomly. I’d have realizations about them that changed the way I approached the story. I still didn’t reopen the document, but the story lived on. I knew I had to give it another try. So three weeks ago, I reached out to an editor and writing coach, asking if she would work with me to revise the novel. I WAS ASKING FOR HER FEEDBACK. It was terrifying.
I sent her the first two chapters. A few days later, she emailed back her comments. I was too scared to open them for a full day. I felt sick. I was unable to work, or eat, or do anything else. I was sure she’d tell me it was all crap and to just give up.
I feared the feedback, imagining the worst.
She didn’t say it was all crap. Her feedback was a revelation: so thoughtful and constructive. Like Daisy, I accepted the criticism and used it to improve my writing. Like Puck, I took a deep breath and didn’t give up just because the task in front of me was difficult. Unlike my past self, I didn’t let the comments — good or bad — define me.
Getting a report card isn’t a happy event for a lot of us. If someone in your home is getting one, I hope that, good or bad, the information it contains is seen not as an unchanging monument, but as a snapshot of who we are. Feedback can change. Performance can change. With the right support and encouragement, we can thrive. And thriving on the inside, in our own opinion of ourselves, is much more important that thriving on paper. Daisy might never be a professional dancer, but she’s learning to thrive inside. Puck might always struggle in life, but he’s learning to define his own worth. I might never have this novel published, but I am learning to enjoy the process of creating just for the process — not for the outcome. I’ll leave the outcomes to the report cards.