It’s the A-.
On Monday, in my first of two sections of Advanced Placement English, I hand back a set of papers on King Lear. Unless you have a specific pedagogical reason to do so, most seasoned educators know to return graded assignments at the end of the period; otherwise, kiss the day’s learning goodbye. The only thing your students will be thinking of is that all important, all validating grade. When class is over, there is also always that group of stragglers around my desk with their papers, whether asking me to decipher my miserable handwriting on their comments or wanting to make an appointment to meet with me for their mandatory revisions. Stacey is waiting patiently, but has a look as if she is going to emotionally explode or collapse or both. The skin on her forehead is furled and she is slightly pitching forward, seeming a bit unbalanced. When everyone else leaves the room, she tries to get out a question:
“I know you need permission to rewrite any grade over a B+ but…”
“Nope,” I answer with a soft grin on my face. Stacey is an A student. She has always been an A student and will always be an A student. If there was a way to receive an A++++, she would figure out a way to get it. She has just received an A- on her paper.
“I’m not disagreeing with the grade or your comments [thank you, o’lord for Stacey’s approval of my grading practices] but I really feel like I can make it even better.”
“Maybe,” I answer. “But I’m not going to let you do that. By the way, how late do you think you were up last night working?”
“2:15am,” she answers without blinking.
“And tonight?” I ask.
“So, with your commute to school, you got about 4 to 5 hours of sleep last night and you will get less tonight?”
“No,” she answers, finally putting the paper away because she knows I am not going to budge. “I got less because it took me about an hour to go to sleep because I was so anxious last night.”
“Sounds amazing,” I said. “Stacey, don’t you want to ever change it up a bit? Maybe take the night off, go knock off a 7/11 or steal a car?”
“It’s first semester senior year. Got to keep pushing. Almost there.” She answers trying to sound breezy and less anxious.
“So, next semester, you’ll really kick back and take it a bit easier?”
She turns and starts to head out the door with her A- King Lear paper burning a hole in her well organized binder.
“I’m not disagreeing with the grade or your comments...but I really feel like I can make it even better.”
The next period, I hand back, to my 2nd section of AP students, their Lear papers. As I pass them out with 5 minutes left in the period, there is an uptick in excited and anxious chatter. Kevin receives his back (also an A-) and I watch as he low fives, under his desk, his best friend Doug who is sitting next to him. Kevin mockingly tries to look at Doug’s grade, as if he really cares, and Doug plants his hand on Kevin’s face and pushes him out of his personal space.
Kevin, like Stacey, is also an A student. It’s not that he cares less. Unlike Stacey, Kevin does not seem to catastrophize school. He does not turn every assignment, every test, every class discussion into some gantlet. Kevin likes school and learning; it just does not feel like the only thing he has twirling in his mind.
As class ends, he picks up his backpack and starts heading out the door. I wave for him to come to my desk.
“What are you doing tonight?” already realizing how weird my question is.
“Mr. Ablin,” he says, with a big grin on his face. “Are you asking me on a date!!?”
“Absolutely not,” I answer. “You’re not my type. I want to know what your schedule is going to be tonight.”
“Oh, it’s going to be just a blast, Mr. Ablin. I’m going to read the first two chapters of The Plague for your class, then prepare for my AP Calc midterm, finish my Bio lab and then get on my Xbox for two hours while listening to a couple of choice Queen albums.”
“When do you think you’re going to sleep?” I ask.
“And will you have trouble going to sleep?” Kevin looks at me perplexed, not really understanding what I’m asking.
“No, No, No. I will close my eyes, and nod off like a baby,” he says with great confidence.
“And what did you think about your grade on the Lear essay?”
He takes it out of his bag and looks at it again, “Well, I got an A-, right?” He saunters out of the room, hitting the top of the door frame with his open palm with an easy jump.
The anxiety that particularly girls and young females currently face is multifactorial. Certainly the use of social media and how media presses upon their psyches has much to contribute to this growing phenomenon; however, ironically, the greater access, opportunity, and equity that has been forged for girls over the past 50 years has also had the effect of turning schools into pressure cookers. Much of the way American education is framed, as an exercise in hoop jumping and approval, makes schools a never ending cycle of external validation for ever higher levels of achievement.
Instead of addressing the issue as a single gender issue to solve, one solution might be to see the positive way that boys’ attitudes toward school and achievement could support everyone in our institutions. As illustrated above, my experience is that boys, as a whole, have a much more tempered and balanced sense of school and its relevance. While I do think that boys could be encouraged to work harder and see school as more necessary for their future life satisfaction, they also seem to know when good enough is good enough -- that there are other aspects of life which need attending to other than the relentless pursuit of the A versus the perfectly wonderful A-.