By George Valadie
You could tell we had just sent them out because the office phones were ringing incessantly. They always do on “report card” day.
Technology has vastly changed how all that happens these days. Our teachers enter grades into a computer program, and magic does the rest. Parents go online, enter a password, and voila!, they can size up a semester’s worth of work.
It works, it’s efficient, it’s what these times call for.
But I miss the old days. With technology we can now communicate tests, quizzes, and homework on a daily basis. Without a single voice being heard, a teenager’s weekend plans can die a quick death, if they’re not careful.
Still, both parents and teachers will tell you it’s just not the same. More is not always more.
Many years ago, at my Catholic elementary school, our report cards were handed to us by the pastor of our church. One by one, he called each of us to the front of the classroom, where he not only handed us our card, but offered a comment on how we had done — a comment heard by everyone.
Years later, I found myself the principal at that same Catholic school. My pastor was now the bishop, my teachers had all retired, but the classrooms and the report cards looked exactly the same.
Teachers now handled the ceremonial “handing out” of the grades, except for one of our second-grade teachers, who had asked me to drop in and distribute them to her class.
I was glad to, even honored to … until I had to.
There I stood, just like our pastor had, with every eye and ear in the room on me. Perfect posture, arms folded, “Good mo-o-o-orning, Mr. Valadie.”
The first little kid had all A’s. “Way to go, what a great report card, Johnny. Keep up that good work! That’s a super job.”
This is simple enough, I thought. In fact, I remember thinking I may have overdone it a bit on that first young man because all these little boogers will have great grades. What second-grader doesn’t? Better not use up all my compliments on the first little guy. I’ve got 24 youngsters still to go.
And so we went on our merry way until … that first really bad report card was staring back at me. The little guy’s six weeks had been a disaster, and he knew it.
He was just 7 years old, but you could tell by his walk to the front that he knew what waited in my hand, and what likely waited for him at home.
Worse, equally bad was his conduct, and the grade for his effort wasn’t much to speak of, either.
I was nothing if not caught off-guard. And that first tentative face was now looking up to hear from me.
All of a sudden, this wasn’t nearly as much fun as I had thought it might be. What was I to say? Should I be harsh? Stern? Encouraging? I didn’t want to embarrass him. The boy is just 7. But was there anything truthful I could say that wouldn’t? Was this teacher wanting me to strike fear in his heart? Get his attention? Or somehow let him know his life wouldn’t always be such a struggle?
To be honest, I have no memory of what I said. At least not to him.
But before I left the classroom, I decided to do my best pastoral impersonation and preach a little homily to this class of eager faces. They seemed to be listening, so I told them that God had made all of them so very different and that He loved those differences.
“Some of you will learn to add faster, but others will learn to read faster. Some will be able to print well; others will be better at cursive. But here’s the thing, everyone can have good effort, can’t we? Every one of us can get a good grade in ‘effort,’ can’t we?”
“Yes-s-s-s, Mr. Valadie,” they sang out in unison.
“OK, then. So this next six weeks, we’re all going to work on giving our very best effort. Right?”
“Yes-s-s-s, Mr. Valadie.”
Success. Darn proud of myself actually. Good grades or bad, I had given every one of them a reachable goal. Each could be proud, if they just did the best that they could.
Fast forward six weeks (an apparent eternity in the life of a second-grader), and there I stood again. “All right, now. Someone tell me, what did we all say we were going to work on this time?”
“Does anyone remember what we said every one of us could do, no matter what subject we’re good at?”
A louder, more deafening silence.
“Come on now, don’t you remember that we said we were all going to work on our effort?”
“Oh, yes-s-s-s, Mr. Valadie!”
It was pretty apparent they didn’t really remember, but then bad turned worse for the principal when I felt the sudden need to venture one last question. “Can someone tell me what the word ‘effort’ actually means?”
No one in the room had a clue.
E-mailing report cards might not be a bad idea after all.
Dear God — Please bless those who try. To teach. To learn. To live in your light. Amen.
George Valadie is president of Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga.