‘One day this will go down on your permanent record’

It’s a classic line from the great Violent Femmes song “Kiss Off?” As a young student. I vividly remember perseverating about that “permanent record” and what it might mean for my success in life. Essentially, this “permanent record” took the form of my report card. I look back and note that, in middle school and high school, I was so focused on getting A’s—primarily out of fear of failure. My parents wouldn’t let me play sports if I earned anything below a B. Outside of my favorite subject of history, my work ethic had little to do with pursuing intellectual curiosity. It was me working hard to get good grades and therefore please my parents and ensure I could still play sports. (Note to parents: I don’t recommend this approach to motivating your kids! My parents still deny they put academic pressure on my brothers and me. We love them, but all respectfully disagree, as we felt that we had to make straight A’s.)

Some educators will tell kids, “Grades don’t matter.” In many ways, they don’t. After high school, very few employers look at one’s academic transcript. Grades only represent a student’s progress at a point in time. But, in our industrial educational model, they offer a way of “sorting” students. Even with all kinds of new thinking in education about assessment and student achievement, colleges and universities still sort kids, using GPA as a key factor in admission decisions. When I got to college, grades became less important to me. I took classes I was interested in and followed my passions. As I let go of being obsessed with making a certain mark, I found that I actually did better in school. Part of that was due to having wonderful college professors, but it also came with a bit more maturity and sense of ownership over my learning.

As we come out of conferences and approach the end of the first trimester, I hope we can all take a deep breath and not be overly fixated on grades, but focus on learning and intellectual growth. That is easier said than done. But, I thought I might point out to all how grades and our report cards sometimes are not the most accurate predictors of future success. Again, they may be accurate about a student’s performance at a point in time, but they don’t tell us what a person can become.

Take for example, a great story in the Washington Post about John Lennon’s report card when he was 15. Here are some of the comments the future Beatle received:

  • “He has too many of the wrong ambitions and his energy is too often misplaced.”
  • “His term marks amounted to 17 percent of the maximum and he missed the final exams. He is certainly on the road to failure if this goes on.”
  • “The tropical forests are safe when John enters the woodwork room, for his projects are small and his progress is slow.”
  • “Work fair—and his attitude in class most unsatisfactory.”

I think we can expect a future rock star and icon to have a bad attitude around authority figures!

But, check out these other famous people and what their teachers said about them.

  • Einstein: “He will never amount to anything.”
  • Winston Churchill: “Is a constant trouble to everybody and is always in some scrape or other. He cannot be trusted to behave himself anywhere.”
  • Sir Richard Branson: “He will either go to prison or become a millionaire.”
  • Roald Dahl: “A persistent muddler. Vocabulary negligible, sentences malconstructed. He reminds me of a camel.”

It would be worth remembering that in Eighth Grade, future President John F. Kennedy had a C- in English, a D in Latin, a D- in History, a D in Science, and a C+ in Religion.

So kids, this isn’t license to ignore your teachers or slack off. It is possible that some of these direct and pointed comments might have had some influence on these famous people. (I can’t imagine teachers writing such brutal comments today.) But, don’t let your identity be wrapped up in your GPA. It’s not healthy, and it is not a predictor of your success. Instead focus on getting to know your teacher and in finding ways to be curious about the world. That is your ticket to success.