My little sister texted me during school recently requesting a “serious polemic” against the honor roll. (She knows I like to write polemics.) Why? “Because the honor roll’s demeaning to little children!” she fired back. I put it in the back of my mind and went on with my day, which came to prove her point.
Midway through my Government class, I was pulled out to talk to my administrator. I chatted with a few kids in the waiting room, trying to find out why we were all there. As people shuffled in and out, we heard snippets of conversations about “getting that D up” and “graduating on time” and “getting one last chance.”
Uh-oh. I chastised myself for not knowing immediately, for letting schooling’s be-all and end-all temporarily slip under my radar. Of course, we were there to talk about grades. What else? We were all borderline cases thrown together for last-minute lectures and discipline.
It turns out that my administrator had actually called me in to help plan the school’s voter registration drive, but to the best of my knowledge, everyone else was in that waiting room because of inadequate report cards. And that freaked me out. At the time, I suddenly felt that I was caught in the basement of the meritocracy, and I couldn’t bear to think that everyone there saw me as an academic lightweight, a flake, a do-nothing. I almost felt like an innocent suspect of a crime, sitting in a cell with other accused offenders, simply waiting to be exonerated and released from my false detention.
The crime, in this case, was the serious transgression of bad grades, an offense dirtier than academic cheating, which students know is pervasive across America and basically accepted by everyone, from Ivy League deans to ambitious school superintendents to stressed-out teachers to depressed students. For a moment, I felt degraded by mere association with the kids getting Ds and Fs, the ones who couldn’t even cheat their way to safety.
Then, I snapped back to reality. I remembered that our grim situation was not the fault of the “low achievers,” but of the grading system itself. Grades today are more than letters. They are a comprehensive lifestyle. They mold your identity and self-perception in school. They tell you how “smart” others think you are and dictate the amount of teachers’ acclaim you receive. They determine which classes you take, honors or normal, which in turn determine how security guards and passers-by treat you in the hallway. They shape your post-high school life far more than is appropriate, ethical, or logical. They put you in a class, literally and figuratively, that perpetuates its own types of socializing, fraternizing and schmoozing. Once removed from your comfort zone, you become slightly unsure of how to carry yourself. You become graded and class-bound.
So, let me be the first to say it on the off-chance that nobody else yet has: the honor roll is a shoddy excuse for schooling, a purveyor of tawdry “education,” and an indefensible obstacle to student progress. And that’s being polite.
My junior year of high school, I started getting straight As. When I saw that first report card, I cried. Really. It was monumental. It was probably the first time since the age of nine that grades had made me cry.