At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Thursday, April 4, 2013

In the Pantheon at the Idol Marked "Grades"

In the name of all that is good and holy, I nearly had a Ronald Reagan moment yesterday.

Who am I kidding, I had said moment.

Depending on your age, you may or may not recall the presidential debate a week before the 1980 election. Reagan was in a neck-and-neck race with incumbent Jimmy Carter, and at one point Carter attacked the Gipper's record on Medicare. In response, Reagan scoffed, "There you go again!"

That was my moment Wednesday.

I was handing back quizzes to some of my students in Ethics, quizzes of thirteen questions--nine multiple choice, four true-false--on a short reading assignment in our textbook. The material was somewhat out-of-the-box but manageable. As far as quizzes go, it was one of our more difficult ones. The average grade for all my classes was a 70. Predictably with that average, some students got D's and F's on the quiz. And because it was the first grade recorded of the fourth quarter, their overall quarter grade is--for now--the same as the quiz grade.

And oh my word, did the complaints roll in. Some because students were genuinely disappointed; I do have several self-motivated souls. But the majority who voiced frustration did so along a couple of lines: (1) Their parents have a habit of checking their grades on Veracross [our school's attendance and grade software] and would likely freak out seeing a failing grade next to their name, or (2) they themselves couldn't stand to have a C, D or F right now reflecting their grade.

Being the soft-hearted, calming soul that I am, I told them to stop freaking out about it and grow up already.

Well, maybe not that heartlessly, but those sentiments were rumbling below the surface like the lava and ash within Mount St. Helens before it blew back during that same year of 1980. I asked why they were so worried. It was just one grade out of many. I detailed the fact that this is one of many grades, that for the entire quarter we'll have seven quizzes, two tests, and one project. That plus a responsibility grade, which is a participation/do-the-right-thing grade worth about three quiz scores that means as long as you never interrupt me or cuss me out you should get a grade boost from it. In short, they have a number of opportunities to make up ground and get back on an even keel.

That message failed to penetrate. The angst and consternation was running as rampant as a forest fire and my message was as doomed as a naive blonde on a date with Rod Stewart. The majority of them had to have a grade to their satisfaction, and have it now.

Well of course, I didn't cave, but it only served to underscore the true issue. People (many of my students included) tend to carve out their identity based on their performance, on how they are graded for certain tasks. For athletes, it might be that last dash in the downhill race that was fourteen hundredths of a second slower than the previous skier. For sales representatives, it may be all about the numbers they create for this quarter. For conscientious parents, it can be the performances of their kids that they (in rather idolatrous fashion) believe reflect on them for weal or for woe.

And then there is the student in my classroom, failing or refusing to see the big picture and rather wallowing in the self-inflicted anguish, asking if this quiz grade (I mean, for the love of St. Peter...a quiz grade!) is going to affect their chances of finishing well and knock them off track from getting into a good college.

The point is we tend to be addicted to our "grades", how others evaluate us in whatever field of endeavor. And we spend much more time in the pantheon of idols marked "GRADES" than we do at the base of what should be one's ultimate identity, and that is the cross of Christ. And when you're on the performance treadmill, nothing is every good enough! It's all a big shell game of "what have you done for me lately"?

It's at times like these that we should hold to the following axiom: Do your best, but remember...10 years from now, no one will remember what you got on an Honors Chemistry test, or a Western Civilization project, or how spotless your Algebra 2 homework was, or what you got on that Ethics quiz. They won't remember that you got 14 points and 12 assists in the district semifinals, but also missed that critical free throw. They won't  think about your tepid business performance despite your best efforts. But God remembers you. Then. Now. Always.

Trust me, the ground at the foot of the Cross is much more hospitable and welcoming than the performance pantheon. The question is, are you willing to take that step when the overwhelming majority of humanity sees it as a kooky leap in the dark?

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