Secrets of My Report Card & Other Tall Tales

My mother saved all my report cards. When I retrieved them from the attic, only grade 8 was missing. They are tall documents, sheathed in a coarse, brown envelope. And they speak for me as a student: mostly A’s with a smattering of Bs. Once I got a C- on a history final exam the year my brother Mark was born.

Marian_2nd grade report card_outside_4x4_300

Aside from letter grades A – F (No S’s, N’s or U’s in the 1950s), there is a full page of my elementary school report card devoted to behavior, including attitude toward school work, recitation, and conduct. In second grade, Miss Longenecker checked the box for “Gives Up too Easily.” I was beyond surprised. I was stunned that my teacher who was also my aunt would think that I was a quitter. What made her think that, I wondered. Did I throw down my pencil when I couldn’t do arithmetic? Or start bawling? The next marking period, the box for “Shows improvement” was checked.

Marian_report card_inside_8x6_300

In 5th grade negative check-marks showed up for my conduct. Imagining my teacher Mrs. Elsie Kilhefner would not notice or care, I whispered, earning the tick beside the box “Whispers too much.” The report cards following show I whispered constantly, every once in a while showing a tendency to reform my chatty ways.

Of the 23 ways behavior could be described on these old-fashioned report cards most were negative. Only three indicate something positive, one for each category: very commendable (attitude), very satisfactory (recitation), and very good (conduct). The adage “Children are to be seen and not heard” was prominent in the adult-centered society of the 50s. Not one teacher that I remember told us we were special and destined for greatness.

Since then American culture has leaned more toward the child-centered. In the 1970s my children Crista and Joel heard Mr. Rogers tell them on TV “You are my Friend, You are Special.”

They sang along with the Gaither tune: I am a Promise, I am a possibility. I am a promise with a capital “P” with one stanza that shouts: “You can climb the high mountain and cross the broad sea . . . .”

Cover: Gaither "I am a Promise" album
Cover: Gaither “I am a Promise” album

In 2012 David McCullough Jr. made a 12 3/4-minute speech to the graduating class of Wellesley High School in Massachusetts before a group of privileged, upper-class teens and their perceived-to-be “helicopter” parents.  The speech went viral on YouTube. Entitled “You are Not Special,” McCullough argues that if everyone is special, then no one is.

Other rich points:

1. We have come to love our accolades more than our achievements.(Don’t go to Guatemala so you can impress admissions at Harvard or Yale. Go because you want to serve the people there.)

2. “Selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself.”

3. Climb the mountain so you can see the world, not so that world can see you.

YourTube screen capture
YouTube screen capture

In other words, through service to others, stand tall  – like my report card from days of yore.

I’m always happy to see your thoughts here – thanks!

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28 thoughts on “Secrets of My Report Card & Other Tall Tales

  1. Another great post coming at graduation season. I love commencement speeches. Wasn’t Mr. Rogers the commencement speaker years ago at Wellesley College? I remember watching him lead the class in his song on the national news one early evening. I will have to search on youtube.

    The one thing I remember about George Bush Sr.’s biography was the emphasis his parents put on the “doing for others” category of his report card. I wish I could find the exact wording, but alas, that book is somewhere in a box awaiting a new home.

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    1. You are connecting us to important bits of “trivia” about Mr. Rogers and George Bush, Sr. I didn’t know these facts about such very public figures.

      When David McCullough was featured on Diane Rehm’s Show about two weeks ago to promote his book based on this speech, Diane mentioned that she had a memento from Fred Rogers that she keeps on her bed-side table with a signed note announcing “You are Special.” Imagine such an accomplished woman treasuring this simple reminder. Thank you for starting our conversation today.

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  2. Love the report cards, and I have some that look very much like them. How interesting for you to point out that there were 23 ways for behavior to be described. Whew. I imagine the “needs improvement” was marked similarly for one misstep or episode, partly so the teacher could not be accused of just–by rote–checking each mark? But I love the insight given by your “whispers too much” mark. Is blogging whispering too much?

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    1. My first thought was that I put my whispering too much into good use through writing, a quieter form of communication. But I see your point–we divulge so much of ourselves in blogging as in social media, something I would never have imagined myself doing ten years ago. You raise a valid question. I hope others will chime in with an opinion. As always, a thoughtful comment, Melodie.

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  3. You were a good student. I always made As but got bad conduct grades. My Dad would say. If you can do the work, the least you can do is keep your mouth shut. Anybody can keep their mouth shut.

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  4. Marian – Another delightful post enjoyed with a cuppa tea this morning. Great for stirring memories, my report cards looked similar to yours, including the checkmarks about talking too much. I remember oh so well:

    “Miss Hunter, if what you have to say is so important, please come up to the head of the class and share it with the rest of us.”

    That served to put the fear of God into me for about 2-minutes, until I discovered that I thoroughly enjoyed being in the lime light 🙂

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  5. Fun post and fun comments. I too heard David McCullough, Jr. on Diane Rehm. And was surprised to hear her say that she treasures Mr. Rogers’ note so much.

    Despite all the complaints about Baby Boomer narcissism, we were not coddled as much as some people think. Those deportment grades mattered to my parents too.

    “Shirley’s desk is not very tidy” was one comment. Like Laurie, I reformed temporarily.

    And now I’m off to straighten up my desk before a party at my house!

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    1. I heard writer/theologian Chuck Swindoll say creativity requires a certain degree of messiness, or words to that effect. So you are completely vindicated!

      In my teaching years my faculty office had to be orderly before I left each afternoon. Now as I write at my L-shaped desk at home there are piles everywhere, spilling over onto the long ottoman beside it. If I cleaned up every day I’d lose my train(s) of thought I’m afraid. Right brain vs left brain? Thank you, Shirley, for your multi-faceted comment.

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  6. Some of my teachers, mostly the women, had smooth and even handwriting like Ms Longanecker, even though they lived several states away.

    Ah, report cards.

    As I became a parent, I felt strongly that I did not want my children to get report cards until they were older (high school). And, that was one reason my children went to Waldorf Schools. And, I taught in a Waldorf School for 4 years.

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    1. Interesting observation about the hand-writing. Miss Longenecker always had that flowing handwriting until a few years ago when it has begun to falter. And she was left-handed too! Nowadays school-kids are not learning cursive, I presume a by-product of the digital age. One exception: Mandarin Middle School where our son teaches this skill as part of his art courses.

      So you were a teacher too. It’s interesting how our bios often intersect. Thanks for adding to the conversation today, Dolores.

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  7. When I left home, I got rid of my report cards from high school. I was mostly an indifferent student except when I loved the subject or the teacher. That changed when I got older and I realized I should be doing my best for ME and not for any one else. I like many of the points made by David McCullough Jr. in his 2012 commencement speech to the graduating class of Wellesley High School in Massachusetts. 😉

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    1. Mother kept much of our “memorabilia” in the attic and would then bug us about going up there and sorting out what was ours. The stash of report cards is one of the things I can now discard.

      Students at WHS are lucky to have Mr. McCullough as their English teacher. Judging from the quips in the early part of the speech, he was witty as well as wise. Thanks for checking in today, Judy-the-earth-rider, clever name.

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  8. Much to ponder here, as usual Marian! It seems to me that we, as parents, and as a society should be able to find a happy medium between being special and not being special. I think there were many young kids who heard Mr. Rogers say they’re special, and they really needed to hear it–because perhaps no one in their lives told them this. I would certainly hope my daughters know I think they’re special. I actually do think they are incredibly wonderful, but they’ve both worked hard, too. I agree though that there shouldn’t be the expectation that everyone will get A’s or everyone will win, or whatever because they’re special. Achievement needs to come from effort.
    Related to this: I was listening to someone on NPR discussing how people need to fail in order to succeed–in other words, to learn.

    I love that you have the old report cards. I think it is so funny that whispering too much was even a category on the card. 🙂

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    1. All my blog friends are special, no matter what Mr. McCullough says. But I think he was referring to a specific group, the “entitled” audience before him when he said “You are not special,” perhaps intended as a mini wake-up call.

      Categories in report cards seem quaint now. School administrators then could not possibly imagine grappling with guns and drugs in the learning environment today.

      Thanks for the “follow,” Merril. I have been following you too, but lately I haven’t received notifications of new posts, so I make it a point to check your site regularly so I don’t miss any. I am never disappointed.

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      1. I was already following you, Marian, but I wasn’t getting the notifications about your new posts. While trying to adjust that, I think I turned off the following and then turned it back on again! Haha. In any case, I am delighted to follow you, and I should see your new posts, too, now.

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        1. Merril, I am not getting notifications of any blogs I follow via WordPress. The problem seemed to coincide with my uploading an additional line of security, Google Authentication, recommended by WordPress. When the problem first surfaced, I went into “Blogs I Follow” and re-clicked each one individually, assuming that action would restart the notifications, but no luck. I wonder what I am missing here.

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          1. I do get email notifications of the blogs I clicked–perhaps the problem is with the Google Authentication? Or your email? I assume you’ve checked your junk mail folders to see if notifications go there?

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  9. At my school in Spokane (Fields Elementary School) the report cards we were given didn’t designate A, B, Cs, etc. We as students became an “Excellent, Satisfactory, or Unsatisfactory” part of society. With that in mind I’m not sure how it felt to be an “A” student (except in art in the sixth grade). On my report my comments probably read something like “Cliff enjoys his meals big time. He is a sound sleeper at nap time and can’t wait to chase the girls at playtime.” Quality exercise.

    Around the fifth grade I finally woke up and got challenged to get as many “quality points” as possible. These became the “A” bar to see how many quality points you could score on your report card and silently gloat when a lesser being didn’t have as many check marks. And then there were always the girls like a “Marian” that got so many check marks that I felt life would be better if I just went out and played “cowboys and indians” instead of studying.

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  10. I have a collection of report cards that my mom kept for me from K-8. It’s like stepping into a time warp to try to link that child with today’s adult.
    And that speech sounds like good medicine. We do need to realize that not everyone deserves a trophy for inhaling on a daily basis. 🙂

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    1. If you ever get desperate for a topic, you can always pull out those “old” report cards. 🙂 It would be interesting to compare — not the grades particularly, but the format and grading system. Thanks for stopping by today.

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  11. My mom was also a report card keeper — I think I now have all of mine from 1st-12th grade and even grade reports from college. Hard to believe I could have ever been so smart and yet so busy doing what I shouldn’t! Loved the reference to David McCulloch’s infamous speech. Enjoyed this fun trip down the Longenecker memory lane and the breath of fresh air your posts bring to your readers. Marian, you are special!

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    1. If nostalgia is a breath of fresh air, I have posted plenty of it. I appreciate the compliment and the encouragement. I’m sure we both have artifacts from home that keep our memories buzzing. Thank you, special lady.

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  12. Chatty girls (my daddy called me “Windy Wales” because I loved to talk) become bloggers and writers, Marian. You were just a writer in training. Thank goodness we didn’t always follow the rules. I liked the girls who whispered back.

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    1. Clever comments — as always, Elaine. Yes, why would I keep whispering if no one whispered back?

      And that’s what I love about blogging – a back and forth conversation with no one telling us to shut up! 🙂

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