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Shades of His Mother

Just as there is a gulf between Whitworth and Goldstein game-playing styles, so there stands a not-unrelated chasm between attitudes towards school. This cultural divide can be best illustrated via two brief vignettes.

Let’s visit young Matthew first. It’s seventh grade, and he’s sweating bullets in home-room because he has to bring home a report card with two Ds on it. In case this weren’t bad enough, the ignomious report card is going home on the very same day that the principal is broadcasting Matt’s best-in-school test-scores over the intercom. So while young Matthew was emphatically underperforming in his course work, his test scores (99th percentile in all subjects) were giving away his vast, untapped potential.

Matt would find some focus in later years, but never overly stressed or strained himself. I don’t think he much cared whether he got an A or B in a given subject, and given his natural test-taking ability and academic aptitude, he had to do little if anything to get that B. If I had to sum up Matt’s academic career in a single word, I’d choose “coast”.

Now let’s drop in on young Jessica. It’s second grade, and I’m sweating bullets over the fact that I haven’t mastered borrowing in subtraction the very first day it was introduced to me. I’m so anxious to learn quickly and be perfect that my teacher advises my mother against having me tested for the advanced program. She knows I have the ability, but she wants to let me mature for a year so I’m not overly stressed.

I would find very little equanimity in later years, always worrying about my work. If a B was good, and A was better, and I’d do just about anything to get the higher mark. All-nighters? Check. Limited social activities? Check. Gut-wrenching stress? Check. What? You thought I ended up all-but-dissertation in Ancient Near Eastern Studies because I didn’t take school seriously? If I had to sum up my own academic career in a single word, I’d choose “grind”.

I was hoping Simon might pull from both of his parents. If he had my propensity for school stress and Matt’s tendency to forget his homework, we’d be looking ahead at 13 years of school frustration. But if he could apply himself like his mother while enjoying his father’s natural test-taking abilities and aptitude, well, then we’d really have something special.

It’s too early to know how Simon will do on the test-taking front, but I’m starting to get a picture of where he sits in terms of application and stress, and it’s a mixed bag. On the stick-to-it-ness front, I couldn’t be happier. Simon has a long attention span, cares if he can do something or not, and will try and try again until he masters a new skill. He’ll swing at baseballs for an hour in the heat and try to make soccer goals or baskets just as long in the cold. He doesn’t care if he’s getting sweaty, frozen, tired, or hungry. He just keeps going until he makes that home run, goal, or shot.

I love that! On the other hand, when he gets tired or hungry and the hits, goals, and shots disappear, he collapses in frustration and will not entertain my suggestion that he take a rest. Instead, he insists that he can’t stop until he succeeds one more time, and he frequently ends up a snotty, sobby mess if he can’t do it.

I’ve just learned that this tendency extends to academics. Simon is at the baby-stages of reading now. He recognizes some sight-words, can figure other words out from context, and can sound out simple words on his own. He finished Hop on Pop last week and started Green Eggs and Ham last Sunday. With help, he read half of Green Eggs and Ham Sunday night. Monday morning, before even eating breakfast, he wanted to complete it.

He started out well enough, but by 8:10 he was hungry and having trouble finishing up. We begged him to take a break. “Simon, your brain is tired. Simon, you need to eat. Simon, you’ve already read 20 pages! Simon, you’ve worked so hard and done great—don’t be so upset!”

Our words resonated with him about as well as my mother’s did with me lo those many years ago. Which is to say, they didn’t. I ended up having to practically force-feed breakfast to a child who was still sobbing over his inability to successfully complete a 60-page book on an empty stomach.

Time will tell whether he’ll score in the 99th percentile for all subjects. Time will also tell how much he’ll apply himself to subjects he doesn’t much care about. But the writing is on the wall about how he’s going to react when he sets a goal—however realistic—and misses the mark. So this mama’s job is to somehow find a way to impart the wisdom it took me 40 years to accrue into a pre-K child or, barring that, figure out some coping strategies to minimize the stress… for both of our sakes!

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