What Is Achievement?

There’s a ton of shit going on in the education world today. I’ll get to it, but first I need to vent about some personal stuff. As Ian nears the end of his high school experience, we’re hitting some bumps.

Suburbia is a machine for getting kids into four year colleges and replicating middle class life. More and more, I’m convinced that this is the only purpose of these communities. The original purpose of suburbs was to provide people with space and a backyard within a short commute of jobs in urban areas. But no one really wants to live in the suburbs anymore.

Before the pandemic, when workers still rode trains and busses into the city, it was clear that the only reason that families lived in our town was because the high school had a good track record getting kids into colleges. The day after graduation, the “for sale” signs appear on the front lawn, because people really want to live elsewhere. Gowns and sash, boxes and moving trucks — it all happens together here. Many moved back into the city, because things are a lot more fun there.

Post pandemic, people are moving here from the city in droves, because our schools are at least semi-open and because there aren’t homeless people permanently encamped on our front steps. Our schools are now open five mornings a week — hardly an awesome development, but much better than the cities. After the kids graduate in June, people might still move out of here, but instead of moving back to the city, they’ll probably go to lower tax states with larger homes.

Because the entire purpose of our town is to send kids to four year colleges, it’s very difficult to have a kid who isn’t going to a four-year college. It’s always been difficult to be a special ed parent; I have more in common with a parent of an autistic kid in the Bronx than my neighbor. But the past couple of months have been horrid.

Ian’s school is gearing up for “Decision Day” and “Award day.” For Decision Day, we were supposed to make a video of him wearing his college t-shirt. Awards only go to kids going to a four year college. No one will ever recognize my kid. So, let me do it here.

Ian was given a raw deal in life. Despite the fact that his IQ is in the top fifth percentile (maybe higher), his brain works differently than other kids, and the schools have never known what to do with him. For years, he was underestimated and undereducated in the worst classrooms in the building. He was physically assaulted by kids with behavior problems. He was forgotten by bus drivers who took him back to the bus depots. He was nagged and micro-managed by well-meaning, but stupid aides. He was excluded from school activities, clubs, and specials. He was treated like a second class citizen.

Despite all that, Ian worked hard. He has been on the honor roll, sometimes the highest honor roll, every semester for five years. He worked his way out of the lowest level special education math class to a regular pre-Calc class (with A’s) through sheer determination. He spent hours on a marching band field, even though the uniforms were scratchy and the sun was bright and he hated every minute, until he developed epilepsy and had to quit. When his epilepsy medicine put him in the hospital for three days last spring, he insisted on going to school the next day, even though his mouth was still covered in boils and blisters. He showed up for every Zoom class, when his school imploded last spring, even when teachers weren’t always there and weren’t doing any work.

Next year, he’ll attend various programs that will help him with his social skills and get his feet wet with higher ed at the local community college. The situation isn’t perfect, because he’s too unusual for any program. I’m hoping that he can continue to learn new skills and move towards greater independence. A four-year college might happen in the future, but definitely not next year.

I am so incredibly proud of my kid. I think there should be a parade for him. Instead, he continues to be ignored. Our family does not fit into this suburban machine.

10 thoughts on “What Is Achievement?

  1. Laura wrote, “Ian’s school is gearing up for “Decision Day” and “Award day.” For Decision Day, we were supposed to make a video of him wearing his college t-shirt. Awards only go to kids going to a four year college.”

    That’s pretty bad.

    “I am so incredibly proud of my kid.”

    You should be!


  2. Yes, indeed, be very proud of your son and his achievements. I still remember the art and creativity of the prediction worksheet he did in elementary school.

    I don’t understand the award giving in your school and it is disappointing if his achievements aren’t going to be officially recognized for small-minded rules.


  3. Our high school (also suburban) would NEVER do that. And it has a lot of high-achieving kids. But we are in the Midwest, where I think the mania about comparing kids with other kids is not so pervasive.


    1. Yeah, I’ve never seen anything like that. That is some bs. Other things you’ve said about that school makes it sound particularly bad.


  4. I have to fess up that my kids’ school does some stuff that looks like that (WEAR YOUR COLLEGE SHIRT TO SCHOOL ON MONDAY FOR A GROUP PICTURE!) but:

    a) it’s a private school and fairly preppy


    b) the graduating class is about 20+ kids.

    I have plans to get together with a mom friend to get school to dial it down a bit with senior stress, both with regard to college counseling (the kids don’t need to spend 2+ years being Instant Pot-ed by the college counselor) and some other senior stuff.


  5. Pretty much what happens in senior awards here – there are awards/acknowledgements for academic scholarships and sports achievement (national representation, etc as well as teams winning for the school), and that’s it.
    [It’s a boys school, so sports are huge – I knew this going in, but still don’t really like the over-emphasis on ‘winning’]

    When you have a kid who is neither sporty nor particularly academic (middle-ish for both) then you know it’s never going to be him on the stage.

    They do, however, have a nice award in the junior school – a ‘Gold Card’ for outstanding effort (*not* achievement) and commitment to learning (basically trying hard in class and doing your homework). And it’s specifically designed to catch those kids who put in 100% effort and don’t always see the reward in the exam results. Kids have to be recommended by 6+ (out of 10) teachers – so it’s really looking for overall effort (not just working at the subject/s you like). And, it’s intended to include ‘improvement’ – to give the option to reward ADD kids (for example) who really struggle in this area. There’s no limit on the number which can be awarded (so some classes might have 7 and others 2) – if a kid deserves the award, he gets it.

    They’re awarded 3 terms out of 4 (with the last term being the overall exam-based achievement awards) – so the ‘try but don’t quite achieve’ kids get their acknowledgement first — which I quite like.


  6. Well, if you want an Internet gaggle celebration, let me know, I’ll show up.

    Well done, Ian. His tenacity and all those other traits will serve him well. As someone who graduated with multiple scholarship offers and then withdrew from *two* different universities without completing a degree (I have two courses left and at 50 years old, I’m starting the first this summer!! My advisor was like ‘sooooo what have you been doing for almost 30 years?’) I applaud taking a bit time to prepare. I’m not neurotypical either, and I wish I’d had a family who had been able to support me in finding my own way and getting the help I needed before I self-defined as a washout and an imposter. It’s a long game.

    Can’t complain too much though, I’ve gotten to do so many interesting things in both my now-wrapped-up media career and my other professional pursuits. (I’m sticking to mission-driven jobs from here on in, if possible.)

    I think culturally things are different in my area – a lot of new Canadian families definitely brag about their kids’ achievements, but it’s less homogeneous somehow. I don’t think we have a day with the shirts that goes on but I’ll find out in a couple of years.


  7. I’ll admit that I love sweatshirt day. It’s the day when I celebrate the transition and, since I don’t believe ein asking people their plans, when I get to hear what the plans are, publicly and celebrate (these days, on FB, but I saw the kids themselves in younger times). I would like to make that celebration for everyone, rather than see it go away.

    I went searching, and, indeed, our “community” college (which is just called a college now, but i still open admission) has sweatshirts. These days, since sweatshirts can be made in small batches, any group can have them. I used to design and order for my kids’ small teams and one of the companies had the motto “t-shirts build teams”, and I kind of agreed.

    The HS admissions process was big at my children’s K-8 and sweatshirts were a part of that. Some of the schools would announce admissions by hand delivering a sweatshirt to the student. My younger kiddo chose a public school, which certainly did not deliver sweatshirts. He arranged to have a friend who attended the public school get a sweatshirt for him so that he could join the others in sweathshirts.


  8. Our high school does senior shout outs on social media, but they really are for everyone. In addition to the usual 4 year university announcements, I’ve seen some for community colleges, the military, straight to the work force (one is getting HVAC certification – probably the smartest pick of the lot!), time off to pursue junior hockey, undecided, etc. It’s one of those things that makes me a wee bit proud of our schools. Anyone can fill out the form to get the shout out, and lots of people do.


  9. Laura tweeted, “Advocates for a later school day believe that their kids’ stress will magically go away, without cutting back on 5 AP classes, 3 hours of track practice, 2 fake club leadership positions, SAT prep, weekend tournaments, and 3 hours of homework.”


    It just pushes it all later, doesn’t it?

    I don’t know what everybody else is doing, but we’ve found that, even with 95% in-person school and a fairly normal sports situation, the year has been pretty streamlined for our 10th grader, especially this fall. Things ramped up in the spring, but there were certain kinds of commitments that were virtually nonexistent for most of the school year: in-person meetings outside of school, birthday parties and other in-person socializing, and regular volunteering. (We have had a couple of recent visits from a classmate who has been fully vaccinated for a while.)

    I have warned my 10th grader (who is a sort of human lint roller in terms of picking up activities) that we need to be a little bit more selective next fall, as it will be easy to over-commit once volunteering and socializing outside of school come back online. Fortunately or unfortunately, it’s only possible to take about two AP courses at a time at his school.

    I have to say that it’s been nice only having one high schooler this year.


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