March 12, 2006

First Rejection

The middle schools in Austin tend to be mediocre, but there are two magnet schools – one in science and math, the other in humanities and government – that draw smart, motivated kids from all over the city, with admission based on grades, standardized test scores, teacher recommendations, and the student’s application letter. Earlier this year we went to their joint open house, and Agent 95, our fifth-grader, was thrilled at the displays from the many elective courses at the science school. For months he’s been excited about that school. He’s classified as gifted and talented in science and math – one of the only three GT math students in his grade at his elementary school – and his standardized test scores are excellent, so we told him he had an excellent chance to get in. On the drawback side, his grades are only medium-good, not stellar, because his work is often careless; he sometimes turns in assignments late or incomplete, and usually messy; he’s a clown and a fantasizer and hypersensitive to boot, and sometimes gets in trouble for acting out those traits. One of his problems, for example, is that he sometimes sneaks a book out of his desk and reads independently during a lesson – a problem of loving to read too much.

Yesterday the long-awaited letter from the middle school arrived, and Agent 95, who likes to be the one who takes the mail out of the box, insisted on opening and reading it himself. When he did, he burst into tears.

He ran into the bedroom where I was taking a nap to recover from the flu (I’m all better this morning). He told me what had happened and began sobbing. I put my arms around him and tried to say comforting things. More than that, the passage of time helped settle him down a little. But all through the evening, mixed with the usual jokes and verbal flights and roughhousing with his brother, there were episodes of weeping and of wondering Why, why, why? What was wrong with him, he asked? Why had they done it? He played a game of Go with his younger brother and lost decisively, and began sobbing again, calling himself stupid, stupid, stupid. And he kept saying that the rejection was “crushing.” I told him that any fifth-grader who chose a word like that had to be smart; and I promised that even though it felt crushing, he would not be crushed. I told him that his older brothers had had early problems in school and had done just fine later. These assurances didn’t seem to work last night, but he’s such a smart kid that I believe he’ll absorb them over time.

It’s so terrible to witness this and not be able to do anything to change it. It makes me want to wrench apart the laws of time and space. It makes me want to tear open the curtain of the world and accuse whoever is behind it. I too have felt like crying since we got this news. One reason I’m not crying is that, like all adults, I’m inured to disappointment. Agent 95 has now taken his first step on that mined road, and it’s agonizing to see.

Imagine being ten years old and opening that letter.

The sages – or some of the sages, anyway – tell us it’s an error to be too attached to our children. That’s an error I have no intention of correcting in this lifetime.

Agent 95 will be doing sixth grade at his elementary school next year: fortunately it’s one of the few remaining elementary schools in Austin that offers sixth grade. He can apply to the same middle school again next year, for entry in seventh grade rather than sixth. The odds of admission that way are statistically lower. We’re going to work with him, of course, to make him a more serious, hardworking student: I’ve told him repeatedly than in order to get all A’s, he doesn’t have to be one drop smarter than he already is, only more diligent. We, and his teachers and counselors, have spent years trying to get him to believe that it would be good to change his work habits. And we’ve seen him try in that direction and improve in some ways. Maybe now he’ll be shaken up enough to make a real commitment.

As an educational writer, I often receive pedagogical materials from publishers to help me write the textbooks they assign me. This year I happen to be working on grades 11 and 12 of a big literature series for a major publisher. One of the categories of students I need to write activities for is the “advanced learner.” The guidelines say, “Advanced learners are a diverse group that includes the ‘honors’ students, the bright-but-at-risk learners, and the high achievers.” The layman’s response is probably, “Who? Could you repeat that, please?”, but cutting through the politically correct euphemisms, my interpretation is:

• honor students: the perfect kids, usually from affluent white families, who have been trained from the cradle that they must get the highest grades and get into Harvard
• bright-but-at-risk: the brilliant but erratic kids whose work habits and grades and behavior don’t always match up to their intellect
• the high achievers: the kids who don’t seem outwardly brilliant but who work so hard that they get A’s – often kids from working-class backgrounds

There’s no question which category Agent 95 falls into, and if I were running a school, I’d seek out kids like that (and the high achievers, too, the ones who often are the first in their families to go to college). But kids like that make extra work for teachers and guidance counselors; they need some correcting, they don’t sail smoothly through academic life as if it were second, or first, nature.

There’s a lot of competition to get into this magnet school – more each year, as word gets around among parents. The cutoff point is getting increasingly high. At some point it gets so high that only the “honors students” are admitted; there’s no room for anything but perfection. The “diverse group” of advanced learners is whittled down to one subtype.

The thing is, as my wife, an educator, points out, every child deserves the kind of education that is offered only at magnet schools and other exceptional schools in this country. If that were provided across our society, imagine where we’d be.