Chacos column: Average smarts is good enough
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In second grade I was placed in a remedial reading class. It was the kind of class where you’re carted down the hall with some other awkward kids into a tiny, stinky makeshift classroom that was obviously once a storage closet. I was one of those kids, and I knew it even at 7 years old.
By fourth grade, I didn’t even bat an eyelash as I lied in front of the entire class when asked how many pages I read in an assigned book for homework. I struggled through 10 pages with my mom, but boldly stated, “70 pages, ma’am,” when asked. Although never officially caught, I suspect my teacher was compassionate enough to let this gross exaggeration slide. This allowed me to feel like the smartest kid in class for a day, and at the time, it was totally worth it.
When seventh grade rolled around, my English teacher handed out brightly colored spelling books at the beginning of the year. I dreaded him walking the aisles in what felt like a knighting ceremony. He anointed the smartest students a green book and gave the average kids a yellow one. When it was time to give out the red books, shame and humiliation cut thickly through the classroom, and the stench of it lingered for the entire year. I was desperate to have the smarts for the green book but that just never happened. During middle school, my self-esteem lived between red and yellow hues.
I muddled through high school with tutoring in nearly every subject. My mom even dropped me off weekly to one of those private tutoring behemoths on the East Coast called The Sylvan Learning Center. Their neon sign could be spotted miles away. Nothing was more mortifying during those dark days than walking through those large glass doors toward a tutor who was easily 90 years old and smelled of stale coffee and cigarettes.
Somehow, I managed to attend an average university and even squeaked by with an overall GPA on the right-side-of-probation. No matter what tactic I used, I just didn’t seem to come equipped to get good grades. I struggled at memorizing facts, analyzing charts and answering multiple-choice questions. I aced partying and sleeping, though.
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At this point in the game, I knew changing my mindset was my only option left. Trying to get smart in the traditional sense was just something so far out of reach and so hard for me to accomplish. I needed to ditch the stereotype I desperately wanted, because I was never going to be a Mensa candidate. Not in this lifetime.
Luckily, in my mid-20s I intersected with my first professional mentor, and she blew my mind right out of the water. Thankfully, her mission was to shatter stereotypes in the public education system. She encouraged me to push for change in special education at the school where we were employed. My job was to help identify multiple intelligences in our students and celebrate individual accomplishments instead. We provided support for students in need, and tried to make working with us very, very cool.
I never looked at average-smarts the same again. That is, until I had my own children in the school system.
Now, I’m a parent of three youngsters who attend a progressive, holistic-type of school. Still, I don’t want my kids falling prey to a similar social and educational system that brought me to my knees years ago for not excelling academically. But I see that they’re somehow stuck in the same cycle, too.
My kids still have to battle with spelling tests, book reports and math quizzes. They sweat, lie and I see them working hard in their own way. They still struggle. A lot. I even have one with an after-school tutor, one who is frequently pulled out of class to go work down the hall, and another who gets modified spelling words every week.
I want to tell my kids that they shouldn’t dwell on their tests, reading levels, spelling tests and how smart they feel compared to their peers. Although these things offer a baseline of information for them in the moment, they don’t uncover the other skills I think may be more important in the long run. Deep down, though, I know they have to figure this out for themselves.
I really do want my children to have somewhat decent grades. But more importantly, I would like them to know that when they’re adults, it will be more important for them to chase their dreams and tap into their natural talents instead. I want to tell them that their mediocrity in school is helping them develop grit and resiliency that will serve them well in the long run. But these things mean nothing to a kid struggling to read alongside his peers.
One day soon, I’ll tell my children that receiving the red spelling book wasn’t actually the most painful thing that happened to me in middle school. I could tell them about an awkward dance, a failed speech or even my first kiss. But in reality, to a seventh-grader, nothing is more painful than being seen as a kid with the red book.
Andrea Chacos lives in Carbondale, balancing work and happily raising three children with her husband. She strives to dodge curveballs life likes to throw with a bit of passion, humor and some flair.
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