virtual children by Scott Warnock

Late bloomer or not — mum’s the word

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My daughter, light of my life, just missed the honor roll once. One half-grade better, and she was in the Promised Land. When I found out, I didn’t chew her out, though our conversation did get crunchy. Tired of it after a while, she hit me with this: “Like you never got a bad grade in high school?”

First, her question was off. Her own grade wasn’t bad. Talking about the qualities of “bad” with her for a moment helped me to evade the main component of her kind-of inquiry: “Like,” hadn’t I received a bad grade in my career?

In fact, I did receive bad grades – not borderline grades – in my school career. I’m not talking “Developing,” “Average,” “On-your-merry-way-with-a-little-effort-so-here’s-a-trophy.” I’m talking Failing. Inadequate. Unsatisfactory.

I didn’t tell her that at the moment, though. When she smelled an opportunity, teenage predator that she now is, and the pressure got too intense, I used my go-to parenting trick and ran out of the room.

The guilt since that conversation has eaten at me a bit though. As I sit here, a person who has written two books, a PhD in English, a job as a writing professor and director of the writing center at an outstanding university, a person who reads Pynchon for fun and writes this really cool blog, I couldn’t tell her, could I? I couldn’t reveal that among my bad grades, my academic stumblings, I, I …

I got a D in freshman English in high school.

Maybe if I told her I could argue that I was a late bloomer (citing Gladwell and some prime examples), even though the reality is that I was a dumb lazyass when I got that D. Maybe I could say that my hard-won pain is what I’m trying to help her avoid, although the pain was minimal and I somehow righted my grades and go on track later, in college and grad school.

So should I have told her? What does a kid do with that information from ma or pa? Feel better? Feel vindicated? Develop an excuse for sloth? She would likely use it to launch total ad hominem attacks: “How can you, get on my back about grades!” she might shriek, Macbeth witch-like. “You got a D in freshman English and are now an English professor! Gaahhh!”

I’m not going to use my already small readership for group therapy, so I won’t get into all of the other things I won’t tell her probably ever, the iniquities, poor judgments, the crimes …

Let’s just say some things are better left unsaid. Your late bloomerness (again, in many cases probably your stupid lazyassness) may make for a great Oprah story, but to your kids, it might be fuel, ammunition. They may even think less of us, confusing their perception of the heroic god-dad, and thus ruining our ability to deliver advice and commandments.

Obviously this gets way more complicated than grades.

Why put them through that? So my frosh D in English stays with us, okay? I have decided not to tell her – not just yet, at least.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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15 Responses to “Late bloomer or not — mum’s the word”

  1. Hm. Maybe there is something in telling them before the bad grades come home. Both my kids already know I went to summer school for Algebra once. Mistake? Could be… I dunno. So…uh… [runs out of room]

  2. I think the running out of the room was certainly the best move. Isn’t our “job” as parents really to keep our youngsters on the right path, not to prove that indiscretions and missteps can be overcome?

    They can learn of those things after they have a bit more perspective.

  3. Really, Scott? And you never inhaled either? Tell her, for goodness sake. A daughter can stand to know her dad isn’t perfect if she finds out from him and not from her friends; once they let her know, the jig is up! Tell her why you got a “D,” too. It was probably Steinbeck’s damn pony story. I hated that story. Or, maybe it was the Warriner’s handbook for English style crap. I was told as a 9th grader that I would never be able to do better than a “C” in English because I couldn’t figure out the difference between a predicate nominative and a predicate adjective. Confession: I still can’t.

  4. Hmm, does she read this blog? Does she know it exists? If she Googles your name it will come up so she will know. Better tell her face to face then have her slap it in your face when she reads about it! Good luck!

  5. I don’t trust anyone who *hasn’t* gotten a bad grade to do meaningful work in higher ed.

  6. Thanks for sharing, Scott. I think that one of the most important parts of my background for teaching is that I was a mediocre student–occasionally brilliant, occasionally at or below C level, but mostly Bs. I can grokk students to whom the material–in my case, writing–doesn’t come naturally. I heard somewhere that one teaches what one most needs to learn. I tell my students that the best way to learn grammar and other aspects of writing–like, clarity, avoiding cliches, etc.–is to grade stacks and stacks of freshman essays.

  7. Showing her you are human and fallible is a very important part of growing up. You are showing her you have empathy
    (something most fathers of daughters don’t show enough of in my opinion) and you are teaching her empathy(something kids today need to learn). Honesty really is the best policy, even if she throws it in your face for a couple of years. But that is just the opinion of a mother to 3 girls.

  8. Now I know… You should’ve had the guts to tell me face to face!

  9. My younger brother had mediocre grades all through highschool and was told by his guidance counselor that he “was not college material”. Many years later my brother was one of New Jersey’s teachers of the year at Holmdel Highschool. The first person he thought of when he received the certificate was that counselor. Unfortunately, that very misguided( himself )counselor was deceased or my brother would have happily made a point to let him know of his great accomplishment, no thanks to any encouragement from him. He apparently judged my brother by the “letters” at the time on his report card and not the overall wishes or dreams of my highschool brother. Not making the honor roll once sounds like it should be the end of the world to you.
    Encouragement is great but feeling pressure from parents about it makes for stressful thinking.

  10. I was in your Freshman English Class and I’m glad you don’t blame me and my shenanigans for your academic demise!

  11. I’m sure your conversation was one about how she needs to apply herself and focus…yada yada. But isn’t the real question, is it still ok to be a late bloomer? All your experiences/scars make you the interesting person you are today. Are we forcing our kids to grow up so fast and squeeze so much information into their brains that late bloomers are becoming extinct? The truth is everyone blooms in their own time and our job as parents is to make sure they keep growing so they bloom at all. So whether you got bad grades or not isn’t relevant to your daughter’s situation, just to your’s.

  12. Great post, Scott.

    I got a ‘D’ in a math course in high school and some joker suggested to my dad and I that I not pursue engineering in college. One magna cum laude degree later (in EE)…

    But all this proves is that school has a screwed up set of values and little predictive value.

    A good friend of mine from high school has a bunch of patents with Steve Jobs and left Apple to do a couple of new hardware startups. He brought a gun to our private school in 8th grade and shot out windows. I saw him at Thanksgiving, with his adult children, who knew all about it…

    We make mistakes. What matters is the larger trajectory. Of course, said friend would have been in federal prison if he’d been in 8th grade post-Columbine…but that’s another story.

  13. Alas! I alluded to your article when texting my Elizabeth…I thought her text silence meant she was pondering..no..the silence meant she was reading this article..Mea Culpa..probably for the best though

  14. I love the post from “your daughter” and I can laugh now that I am about a dozen years removed from having a teen aged daughter.

    A wise man once said that if your child makes it through ages 13-18 alive and free from a criminal record that is expunged at 18, you have done well. It sounds like a low bar to meet, but those of us who have survived a daughter through adolescence laugh mirthlessly at the thinly concealed humor beneath the truth.

    We all made mistakes growing up, and my own father once confided to me (after my arrest when I was a teen for being stupid) that when he was 17 he stole a car and ran away from home and ended up in jail…before he joined the Marines, became a senior officer, and earned his Master’s degree and retired as a Colonel.

    Don’t sweat the grade. Keep focused on the goal – 18, alive and free. And eventually, you might experience the joy of hearing those sweet words “Dad, you were right…”

  15. I was a straight A student when I failed my driver’s test the first time – the worst part being that my high school principal (also my algebra teacher) was there renewing his bus driver’s license. That thirty-five year old shame and horror still makes me break out in hives! So, when the testing officer made my son put the car in park in the middle of the road – after running a red light – we commiserated over a Big Mac and chocolate shake. Fast forward several years, and we were at the university together. He said I inspired him because I wasn’t perfect. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

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