Report card

by Wolf Pascoe on April 3, 2011

Do they still have report cards in school?

From kindergarten through medical school, the card appeared at the end of every semester, my shadow, my kiss, my betrayer.

In grammar school, we were graded for academics—reading, math, and so on. The scale ran from A to F: Excellent, Good, Average, Poor, Fail. And we also had twelve did-we-do-what-we-were-told? grades: co-operation, dependability, neatness, and so forth. The scale there was simpler: O, S, or U: Outstanding, Satisfactory, Unsatisfactory.

In the fourth grade, I brought home my first report card with a U on it. My promptness was unsatisfactory. I refused to show the card to anyone.

My mother tried to coax it from me.

“It doesn’t matter what the academic scores are,” she said. “What’s really important is your behavior.”


“Here,” I said. “I don’t care anymore!”

I flung the card on the floor and ran to my room, threw myself down on my bed and wept.

As a physician, I am still graded. Silly me, I had thought after I passed my specialty boards that I was done with grades. But not so. Specialty certificates must now be renewed. And at the hospital where I practice anesthesia, I am graded on what’s really important: compliance.

Compliance has to do with rules, and neatly comprises the twelve do-what-you’re-told grades from grammar school. I have rules set for me by the government, by medical bodies, by the hospital. It’s like grammar school, except now the rules’ purpose is to “optimize patient outcome.” This means they are supposed to help patients get better.

Some of the rules have a sound basis in science—in that happy case they are called “evidence based.” But many are based on guesses. They are what somebody somewhere thinks ought to be good for patients.

I could go on and on about ought, and about grades and compliance at my workplace. But that would make me angry and rail about the stupidity and cruelty of large institutions. I would end up running to my room, flinging myself down on my bed and weeping.

So let me just say that on D-Day, the reason the GIs got to the top of the hill at Omaha beach was because they ignored what they’d been told to do and did what they thought best and let’s leave it at that.

Anyway, I want to tell you about Nick.

Nick has no report cards. At Fern Hill, mention grades and tests and compliance to the teachers and all you’ll get is a puzzled look. In my humble opinion, that is a very good thing, and I wish it would continue throughout Nick’s life.

But what about learning? What about accomplishment? How’s the reading going?

Ah, there you have me. Nick still has no interest in learning to read. Actually, he has interest, and a whopping fear of failure. He loves to be read to, and, for Nick, fictional characters are real. The subtlety and complexity of his thinking about them flabbergasts me.

But as to his picking up a book and making his own way with it, for now he’d prefer not, even though he recognizes individual words and writes them.

I have it on good authority that when schoolchildren are left to their own devices, reading kicks in by age twelve. I suppose this means that they find a way to learn to learn without giving up. We’ll see how it works out for Nick.

Meanwhile, what I fear most about Nick’s fear of failure is not how it operates on him, but how it operates on me, and how my fear of his fear in turn operates on him.

Another way of saying this is that Fern Hill doesn’t need to give me a report card on Nick, I have one of my own. As someone who has been followed all his life by report cards, I can’t help it.

I hope that by telling you about it openly, I’m less likely to tell him covertly.

So here you are:

. . .



Fern Hill




Notes on Biology, a five-minute video explaining what school is all about:


The College Countdown by Big Little Wolf


Express yourself! Any thoughts about report cards? I’d love you to add your comment below. I always respond here.


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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Alameda April 3, 2011 at 5:21 pm

We’re graded in life at all times. Whether you are a doctor or a janitor, the way you conduct yourself and show your work will get you “grade” i.e promotions, bonuses…It is how life is. Would you like to go to a restaurant where the meal is not well presented, or the waiter is not well dressed….
Fear of failure may be a good thing. This means one is a perfectionist. It is the feat of not trying that one needs to “fear”. But then this becomes a catch 22.
as for kids and reading, it is funny you say that- the doctor’s child does not like medicine, the lawyer’s child does not like law…

Ahhh, the spices of life


Wolf Pascoe April 3, 2011 at 9:48 pm

I think it was Beckett who said, “Tray again. Fail again. Fail better.”

I like Seth Godin’s book Lynchpin because it makes a distinction between trying (good), failing (good), and mania for control (not good.)


BigLittleWolf April 4, 2011 at 10:45 am

I hated those S’s and U’s in the few courses (in college or grad school, I forget) where they were used. I wanted tangible data so I knew that I was being rewarded for my accomplishments and effort, but also, where I needed to do better.

I will say that for a child, I love the report card you came up with for Nick. Aren’t those exactly the things we really want for our children – and ourselves?

The dilemma, of course, is “the real world.” Its competitive nature. The fact that we really must acquire certain life skills. And grades help to measure that process.

I think the real problem in report cards (or performance reviews in the corporate world, for that matter) is when our reliance on them is extreme, and our self-esteem (or that of our kids) is too heavily based on those often subjective measures.


Wolf Pascoe April 4, 2011 at 7:16 pm

All I know for sure is that I didn’t have an original thought until I left school. I’ve probably had three since that time, but still.


BigLittleWolf April 6, 2011 at 10:48 am

I have to say – I loved college. Undergrad was an amazing learning experience for me – and all kinds of original thought not only encouraged, but inspired by faculty. Grad school was another matter…

Those grades, as much as anything, spurred me on to do more and better, which became part of the momentum of the relationship I felt with my instructors and increasing appreciation for what I did, and challenges provided. Granted, that isn’t the experience for everyone, and my undergrad institution was very special and classes quite small.

But this is the sort of experience I would wish for our kids.


Wolf Pascoe April 6, 2011 at 5:28 pm

Is it still that way today, I wonder …


D April 4, 2011 at 11:59 am

I like your style Wolf.

Grades, yeah.

They were always railing on about my record when I was a kid, how I’m gonna ruin my record for my whole future. They did this to such a degree that by fourth grade I didn’t care a twit about my freakin’ record—the teachers and the principals were so abusive and like any kid I was just trying to grow up alive. By sixth grade I knew I was in an asylum and by eleventh grade I had the good sense to escape.

Now, my record is the lines on my face (which on any given day can scare the hell out of me.)

As for grades, I like how you made up your own. Your boy will profit from your insight. You’re wise so you got some good stuff there. For the not so wise inflation and deflation seem to rule.


Wolf Pascoe April 4, 2011 at 7:23 pm

What I wonder is how I’ll do when Nick gets to middle school and brings home an actual report card. My guess is he’ll take it a lot less seriously than I will, which will mean his time at Fern Hill will have been well spent.


George April 6, 2011 at 5:33 pm

Yes, report cards don’t end when we leave school…all our lives, we are graded by someone for sure!


Barbara April 8, 2011 at 6:48 am

I hope “they” are right about the learning to read on their own thing. Do they test for dyslexia there? It would seem hard to detect at an early age if they aren’t testing their reading skills.
My kids are all big-time readers, but the younger two were reluctant to read on their own – our nightly sessions in 1st grade were nightmarish head-butting sessions until they gained confidence, then they took off like rockets.


Wolf Pascoe April 8, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Nick reads enough by osmosis that we’re pretty sure he doesn’t have dyslexia. This was a concern, as he had apraxia of speech when younger, although that’s not supposed to be related. His school has been around for 60 years, and it does seem that all the kids eventually learn to read without the head-butting. But it’s an exercise in surrender on the parents’ part for sure. Thinking of the GIs at Omaha Beach gives me heart.


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