A Story I’ve Rarely Told: The A Minus Incident

I’ve mentioned before that I was one of several valedictorians of my high-school class. The six of us all had 4.0 GPAs.

A 4.0 was as high as one could get in our high school—all A grades (A+, A, A-) counted as 4 points. There were no deviations for pluses and minuses, and there were no extra points for AP or Honors classes. (In fact, the school didn’t have separate AP classes, though it offered the tests.) And, in addition, the school only counted semester grades—quarter grades were shown on report cards, but not used in calculating GPAs.

My junior year of high school was my hardest, as it is for many students, then and now. I took six courses—Honors English, U.S. History, Chemistry, French 4, German 3 (straight from German 1, I skipped German 2), and Russian 1. I had no free periods for studying, and I had homework in most of these classes most nights. But through the second quarter, I had all As, and I even had an A+ in Chemistry.

My father at about this era, early 1970s – you can see how stern he could be

For the third quarter, ending in the spring sometime, I brought home a report card with an A- on it and no A+s. I can’t remember which class the A- was in, but I remember my father’s frowning response when he saw the report card.

“You should do better than this.”

We had several dinner discussions about how an A- could be improved.

I’d been disappointed in my grades that quarter also, but I recognized that it wasn’t the end of the world. I’d have to be sure that nothing slipped further in the last quarter of the year to retain my class ranking, but I knew that this report card wouldn’t impact my GPA.

Still, I was angry and hurt at my father’s reaction. This was the man who was chastising me—the guy who got a D in Algebra?

My father’s lack of early scholarship was part of our family’s lore. My mother—also valedictorian of her high-school class—dated and married her classmate who got a D in Algebra the first year she knew him. His problem wasn’t capability, but in his early teens my future father suffered from a poor attitude and failure to do the assigned work.

Somehow my father turned it around (probably my mother’s doing) and later earned a Ph.D., but still . . . his history was that of a D student, which I knew full-well. He shouldn’t be complaining about an A-.

I hid a lot of tears that spring.

Many years later, just a few months before he died, my father and I spoke about the A- incident. My pique still showed.

“I was too hard on you,” he said, “wasn’t I?”

“Yes,” I told him.

At his funeral two years ago this week, his former secretary told me, “Your dad was awfully strict with you kids. I remember when he complained about an A- you received.” So the story had made it to his office. “I told him he shouldn’t give you such a hard time. Wasn’t I right?”

I chuckled and said I’d told him the same thing.

Like my father, I know I was hard on my kids. They were (are) smart and usually were good students. Even though I was strict, as they went through high-school and college, I tried to keep my perspective about their grades, remembering the A- incident with my father. I think I was relatively calm about grades, though I lost my cool about many other things—assignments not turned in, papers forgotten, and disciplinary failures. I’m sure they could describe many times when I overreacted.

I wonder which of my failures they will try to eliminate from their parenting behaviors, should they have kids someday.

When has a memory from your childhood impacted how you parented?

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5 Comments

  1. I’m sure you recall the story about the man who complained he had no shoes. I grew up in a school for boys who had lost a parent or parents and have often bemoaned that no one at the time demanded excellence from us. I am sure he was doing his best as he saw it, you have done your best, and your kids will do their best for your grandchildren.

    • You are right — it’s a good problem to have when your parents care too much about how you’re doing. At least a better problem than the reverse.
      Thanks for reminding me of that . . . and of the fact that most parents do the best they can at the time.
      Theresa

  2. I’m pleased to say that I graduated at the top. . . of the bottom half of my class. I did however, hold the record for the most classes kicked out of in a single day. . . all six, including chemistry, physics and Latin. Tom Donaldson held the record for the most classes kicked out of in a year. He edged me out for the title by about three.

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