Burn Those Grades

I am the youngest of six children. My parents' child-rearing was rather hands-off even with my older siblings. By the time I came around I was pretty much on my own. I was a nerd before nerds were cool. In 1976, my first year at Reynolds High School, I had a really rugged schedule with mostly classes taken by sophomores and even a few classes taken by advanced junior and seniors. I went to school all day and did 3 - 5 hours of homework each night and all weekend. I all but lived at the Rockwood Branch of the Multnomah County Library. This was all self-driven. My parents never once asked me about my schooling or my homework.


Don't get me wrong, my parents showed me lots of attention and love. It just did not have anything to do with formal schooling.


Well, the first quarter of my first year of high school came to a close. I killed it. Straight As with the hardest schedule in the history of the school. I was very proud of myself. Too proud. Maybe cocky. Maybe even a bit superior and arrogant.


The grade report came in the mail. I saw it sitting, unopened, on the dinner table when I came home from school. I was so excited that my parents were going to open it, be proud of me, and praise me.


Dad came home from work, dinner was served, and the three of us sat at the dinner table. It was an extra nice dinner for a school night. Mom had a special meal, my favorite, dessert, and candle light. Mom drew attention to the envelope from the school. Dad picked it up and held it to the light without opening it. "Son, are these your grades?" "Yes, Dad," I replied excitedly. He then very deliberately put the envelope in the flame of a candle and burned my perfect grades.


"What, I screamed! Those are my grades! You have to sign them and I have to take them back to my home room teacher." My head was spinning. I felt sick.


"Joseph, my mother stated, your father and I love you beyond measure. So do your older brothers and sisters. We have all been talking. We think you are too focused on a narrow vision of success. We have noticed that you are often stressed. You do not seem to have any friends. All you do is school and school work. You used to ride your bike all the time. You used to always be building experiments in the shed. We all miss your jokes. You don't do your volunteer work any more. School is important, but grades are not. We want you to do what you love because you love it, not to impress anyone."


"You are becoming somewhat of a twerp, Dad added." "Don't worry, we have invited your home room teacher over for dessert. We will explain about the burned grade report. Everything will be OK."


Mr. Johnson showed up for dessert. He, mom, dad, and I had a great evening. I do not remember ever feeling so loved until years later when I met my wife, Amy. It took me a while, but my parents' grade-burning lesson sunk in. I kept working hard in school, taking hard classes, and doing well. But I did it more for the pure, authentic joy of learning than to earn good grades, get into college, or for bragging rights. I made some friends, rode my bike, told corny jokes, did lots of crazy science experiments that had nothing to do with school, and volunteered at the old Multnomah County Poor House (now McMenamin's Edgefield).


My parents were amazing people and I miss them every day. They gave me so much and taught me so well. I am not sure that any lesson was more important to me than the grade burning lesson.


Thank you Joanne (1932-1988) and Remo (1930-2020). And thank you to anyone who read this far. I hope my story helps with any stress you are feeling about you or your student's grades.

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