Big Fat F

imagesI remember the first one c. 1977. It was a 5th-grade social studies test. There was a bonus question: Who was Gary Gilmore? I shared my superior knowledge of current affairs and the dark return of capital punishment in the US with my classmate, Kelly Chaney, by a subtle shift of my test in her direction. From her angle, my answer of ‘He got executed’ must have looked more like ‘Head of the executive,’ because that’s what she wrote. Whether the teacher actually saw us cheating or just guessed from that preposterous answer, we were both rewarded with a big zero of a grade. These details stand out in my memory as a turning point on my previously flawless academic record, not to mention criminal history. But it was mainly the trauma of the failing grade and subsequent shock and awe treatment from my parents. None of us were prepared for failure.

I also remember the first and only year my own children went to a US public school in 2002. Things had changed. There were regular school awards ceremonies throughout the year, in which certificates the likes of Best Attendance, Best Teacher’s Helper, Most Considerate, Snappiest Dresser, Top Animal Lover, Cleanest Hands, etc. were conferred so as to leave no one out, everyone a winner at something even if they didn’t make honor roll. By the end of kindergarten, the overt praise started to feel a little like a sticky, drippy lollipop you just don’t want to hold anymore. If I had had a hard time dealing with a bad grade for cheating back in Mrs. Stanley’s class, what in the world would these kids be prepared for after 12 years of institutional ego waxing on top of the ramped-up academic expectations? Still, even though I can rattle on about how out of whack this all is with the real world, and in fact have left my country in search of a kinder, gentler –ok, messier—reality for my kids, of course I still expect them to get good grades.

Flash forward to the present: They barely manage to pass many of their school subjects and some not even. I have not so much come to terms with this as resigned myself to it kicking and screaming. Because, based on my experience, school is supposed to work as follows: You attend class, do the assignments, do your homework, study for tests in whatever way works for you (for me it was in Cyndi and Kristi Palmer’s closet atop a pile of clothes, smoking cigarettes with the door closed; for mine the pile of clothes remains, cigarettes replaced by 12 open chat windows, tweets, likes and the essential scanner for note sharing) and your grades should reasonably reflect these efforts, right? Only the very unfortunate few actually fail. There were no F’s (other than the one for cheating) in my social circle. So how can it be that my kids and any number of their friends fail subjects at the end of the year?

The fact is they are not some of those very unfortunate few; they are part of the unfortunate many who seem to almost take it in stride here. My best approach to rationalizing it is semantics. Because llevarse una materia doesn’t mean failure as much it does ‘not yet passing’ or schlepping the subject along with you until you manage to pass it. We no longer make vacation plans in Dec. because of the likelihood that they’ll have to take extra exams; and if they don’t manage to pass then, they get yet another chance in Feb. right before the next school year starts in the southern hemisphere, pretty much leaving the entire summer in limbo and impossible to plan. As if it weren’t still a major challenge for me to plan ‘summer’ in December as it is (I repeatedly refer to January as July). So I go about the business of searching for the relativity factor in all this, unraveling my previously stated view on the universal way of school, grades, etc., and try to understand it in context. After all, failure is a harsh, heavy word. Maybe it’s a hemispheric thing, maybe it’s the water. Or maybe it’s just me.

I have a problem with failure. It’s all wrapped up in competition. Although I get a sense of solidarity when talking to other local (and to wit, unfazed) parents about how many subjects their teenagers have to retake this summer, my sense of competition takes over when the subject comes up with my own parents or friends outside Argentina. Their kids are all busy overachieving, becoming honor students, taking AP classes, etc., while mine and many of their classmates can’t manage to pass math. The competitive thing gets in the way. I shut down, change the subject, can’t deal with the f-word.

But here’s the thing. There is very little coddling or micro-management of students at the school my little slackers attend. No tracking, no phone calls home from the teacher because they’ve slipped from an A to a B, no neatly quantifiable assessment of academic performance. They are expected to figure out how to study and process loads of content in 13 subjects, very few grades factor into their averages and no grade-curving. If they are lacking any single element teachers consider fundamental to their subject by the end of the year, they will likely not pass. Heavily subjective, but it is what it is. Sink or swim. Who the hell ever heard of failing art or music? Welcome to the schools of the UBA (University of Buenos Aires). Thank god they have multiple opportunities to finally pass. And who knows, maybe along the way, students learn something about falling into a pit and how to figure their way out. In my experience, this is what life serves up on a regular basis long after school is done.

I am presently in my own process of digging my way out of this confounded notion I have of what a bad grade means, and feeling like I’m getting a glimpse of light coming from above. I am pretty convinced that the time invested in academics, sports and other varieties of competition leaves scarce room for students in the US to fail but not be considered a failure. Argentina is a messy, frustrating and in some ways broken-down place, but Argentines do manage to scramble their way out of crisis after crisis. Crossing my fingers that my kid will reap copious benefits from having failed Latin and Math this year and spent a summer learning how to pass them. Tomorrow we’ll find out.

The Transition

In my personal struggle to make sense of school options—the ones we’ve foregone and the ones we’ve chosen—I’d like to reflect on the hand we’ve been dealt over this past school year (7th grade). For anyone new to Argentina, the system here approaches the configuration of grade levels in the following way: There are basically only two stages, i.e., primary (1st-7th) and secondary (8th-12th years), thus doing away with the dreaded middle-school stage. This makes seventh grade the gateway into high school, and a time of major transition for many kids.

Like all big cities, Buenos Aires has good (few) and bad (many) public high schools, in addition to an entire gamma of private options. Given our experience in the private school of our choice in elementary school, we decided to go with one of the most limited and rigorous public options for high school. Buenos Aires fortunately has a top tier of selective high schools that belong to the university (UBA) system: Carlos Pellegrini, El Colegio Nacional Buenos Aires, I.L.S.E (half public/half private) and Agronomía. What that means is they operate with public university funds, the teachers have university degrees (as opposed to teacher’s school diploma), are UBA faculty members, classes are known to be academically rigorous, and these school are autonomous in defining their curricula (i.e., they are not subject to city or provincial oversight).

Aside from standing apart academically, these schools are also notoriously difficult to get into. They all require prospective students to attend a prep course several hours per week throughout seventh grade (outside regular school hours) in preparation for the entrance exams. However, so concerned are parents about their kids’ preparedness for the exams, most opt to enroll them in private study centers in addition to the official course.

Because I tend to question the way things are done (a lot), I initially was not in favor of supplementing the mandatory classes with additional private ones. Mainly because I thought 6 hours a week should certainly be more than enough extra class time, and furthermore I am loath to follow the herd—in this case, the herd of parents signing their kids up for extra classes. I then learned that, essentially, in not giving them all those extra hours of help, I would be placing mine at a disadvantage in comparison to the herd (kind of like not driving an SUV in any US suburb…). So in the end, and mainly at my own children’s insistence, I gave in and enrolled them two afternoons a week at one of the private study centers (El Velasco, Silvina y Gustavo, Cursiva, just to name a few). So their seventh-grade schedule looked like this:

Regular school            8-1:30

Study Center                 2:45-5:15            M/Th.

Entrance course          6:30-9:30pm             Tues.

9am-12noon            Sat.

I rationalized this decision based on my determination for them to get in, but also on my hunch that their current school would waste away the morning hours even more so than in previous years with no individual effort expected outside of school. (This I had on the authority of numerous other parents and turned out to be resoundingly true.) Therefore, all those extra—and expensive—class hours were, for me, insurance against the academic freefall awaiting them in their last year of—also expensive—elementary school. In this sense, it was a good decision and I’m glad they were spending their afternoons finally sinking their teeth into some real content and how to go about processing and storing it all; however, in hindsight, I would say that in terms of really giving them an extra advantage on the actual tests, that part really came down to us in the end.

After the first couple of months of practice tests turned out some pretty mediocre scores, we decided to get more involved ourselves to flesh out the problems. Without going into the intricacies of each of my children’s learning tendencies and study habits, I can confidently say that their inadequacies or weak areas were easily identifiable and it was surprising that the private study center, considering what we were paying, did not seem to have done so themselves by that point. We ended up taking care of all the bad habits through intense work and study strategies at home. At the end of the day, I think that this effort along with the official course would have been sufficient, although I am thankful that the private classes at least provided some consistency in what otherwise would have been a sort of year-long academic joyride school-wise.

And just a brief promotion of our new school, we chose ILSE for several reasons. Although it is not completely public (there is a fee of $600/month—miniscule compared to private schools), it does otherwise function as a public institution under the same conditions mentioned previously. The extra cost presumably goes towards ensuring that the teachers don’t adhere to the frequent public school strikes so common in Argentina; ILSE stands apart as the one UBA school that holds classes on strike days. Also, it only has two turnos (shifts) per day—morning and afternoon—unlike the Pellegrini and Nacional that have three, meaning that students at those schools may get the night shift. This last factor was a non-possibility for me so the choice was pretty easy.

This transitional year has been a priceless year of learning for both my kids and their parents. We’re all much more aware of their strengths and weaknesses and they especially now know how it is within their power to overcome the latter. And once again, I have seen how having to compensate for the failings we encounter is an essential part of their education.