Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The "Usually" Suspects

Sometime in the early 1970s, the progressive educator arrived in St. John’s grammar school. Gone were the venerable old report cards with the familiar grades of A, B, C, D, and the big fat F, too. In their stead were pabulum progress reports with non-grades, if you will, ranging from the best, “Progressing very well” to the middling, “Is progressing” to the worst, “Needs to put more effort.” Of course, I’ve assigned value judgments to these three classifications, which were not intended by their creators.

These new progress reports of ours also included a mother lode of categories within such traditional courses as English (called Language Arts) and History (known as Social Studies). To this day, I am at a loss for words as to what this one Language Arts category embodied: “Uses word attack skills.” I don’t ever recall the term being explained to us, but then I suspect that my teacher, salty old Sister Camillus, hadn't a clue, either.

Evidently, this noble experiment of employing the carrot and stick, and oh-so-gently importuning us to try harder, failed miserably. The As, Bs, Cs, and Ds soon returned, but not before our reports cards—or whatever the heck they became—were full of 1s, 2s, 3s, and 4s. If memory serves, 1 was the optimal grade (or non-grade) and 4 the bottom of the barrel. But once again, I’m employing value-charged adjectives here. I surmise the social experimenters reasoned we wouldn’t be as bowled over by a 4, or as boastful among our less fortunate friends with our straight 1s. We, however, took our “Needs to put more effort” check marks just as hard as Cs and Ds. And although mere children, we weren’t fooled for a second by the sleight-of-hand numbers game. Despite descriptions telling us otherwise, 1 signified an A to us; 2, a B; and so on and so forth.

I believe these social experiments absolutely jumped the shark in an area headlined Personal Development, which included "religion" and "social growth" under its umbrella. Here, even a tepid “Is progressing” was too loaded a term for the education engineers. The top mark one could achieve in this realm was “Usually”—a not only insipid grading word, in my opinion, but just plain wrong and a true injustice for an individual who always cooperated in work and play, accepted responsibility, etc. Among many lessons learned there, St. John's grammar school taught me the road to hell is paved with “Usuallys” and “Needs to put more efforts.”

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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