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Daniel Ruth

Let us now praise famous dunces

At last, a topic in which I can claim unequivocal expertise: abject failure.

So when the Hernando County School Board announced recently they were going to consider a new policy to help avoid the stigma of F and eliminate zeros in the grade book for elementary school students, this struck me as a craven capitulation to the concept of duncedom.

Apparently, a bunch of Kumbayesque hand-wringing whiners have convinced some Hernando School Board members that giving kids bad grades simply because they failed tests or botched assignments might have a deleterious effect on the drooling tot's self-esteem.

Piffle. Sheer piffle. And a pinch of balderdash, too.

Under the tutelage of the Sisters of the Blessed Inquisition, I successfully managed to flunk fifth grade while matriculating at the St. Sebastian Academy of Fear & Loathing back in Akron.

There were many reasons why the school insisted I stick around for another year. Perhaps it was the near straight F's, with the occasional D in moments of rare inspiration. Perhaps it was the result of attending classes ruled by ruler-wielding, head-slapping, paddle-wielding nuns with all the sense of humor of Yasser Arafat meets Karl Marx.

Remember the final scenes of Braveheart? That was merely after-school detention at the St. Sebastian Institute of Paranoid Flinching.

Or maybe, just maybe, and this is only a guess but it's entirely possible, my academic shortcomings were due to the fact I was a complete moron.

In any event, after years of haplessness, frustrated tutors, summer school, tossing my report card into the sewer on the way home from school and otherwise deftly managing to avoid anything remotely resembling learning, it was decided by the Sisters of the Black Plague that it might be a good idea for me to give fifth grade an encore performance.

Was I crushed? Was my tender self-image torn apart? Was I tormented by my — failure? Naw. Since my best friend John Quinlan also flunked, I hardly felt alone in confronting another year with the Sisters of the Immaculate Waterboarding.

The grudging truth is fifth grade 2.0 turned out to be fortuitous. I did become a better student, although no one would have confused me with Stephen Hawking. My grades did improve. I eventually saw sixth grade — and beyond.

Part of the reasoning behind Hernando's possible move to avoid issuing too many failing grades is that struggling students deserve a chance to "redeem" themselves after demonstrating they have all the scholarly acumen of an anvil.

But school, even at its elementary level, isn't — or shouldn't — be reduced to a hugfest, where everybody gets rewarded simply for having a pulse. School is about learning, about achievement, about performance. It's about turning in assignments on time. It's about grades. It's how we know who is learning, who is trying to learn — and who isn't.

And if a child isn't measuring up we need to know that. More importantly, the kid needs to know it.

If underperforming students are going to have excuses made for them, their mistakes glossed over and even given a degree of credit, what does it say to the child who does work hard and studies and succeeds — or at least does the best he can and falls short? Aren't their successes diminished by a double standard of coddling the less engaged?

This is like rewarding the last place finisher in the Kentucky Derby equal first-place prize money merely because Old Dobbin did show up after all, even though he finished 120 lengths behind the winner and stopped to graze for a few minutes in the middle of the race.

If Hernando school officials want to help failing students, perhaps they can be given extra credit assignments to improve their grade-point averages. Tutoring doesn't hurt, and certainly more actively involving parents is critical to any child's progress in school.

Or you could always threaten to send them off to the testy clutches of the Sisters of the Holy "Saw II.'' Just a thought.

More pointedly, the proposed Hernando experiment presupposes that failure is somehow inherently a bad thing.

We all fail in life. We fail in jobs. We fail in marriages. We fail in sports. We fail in businesses. Sometimes we fail in all of those things.

While some Hernando School Board members would like to shield their little darlings from the harsh realities of their academic frailties, in the end they are doing their charges a cruel disservice.

There is a philosophy in education that everything that happens in life serves as a valuable teaching moment. There are lessons to be learned in the importance of performing assignments on time or flopping — that things don't always go as planned; that success is the product of hard work; that failure in a class doesn't mean you're a failure as a person.

Life isn't graded on a curve, unless you live in Hernando County.

Let us now praise famous dunces 07/02/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 2, 2009 8:59pm]

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