My Back Pages, Part Two
In grade four, I experienced a major depressive episode from approximately December to March. So for the entirety of this grade I was either entering, in the middle of, or recovering from a serious illness.
My first report card is from December, and covers the time period leading up to the depression.
The comments are, for the most part, glowing. My main teacher described me as enthusiastic, intelligent, and creative, noting briefly that I sometimes get distracted in class. Like the teachers before her, she spent a lot of time discussing my creative writing abilities.
The other teachers- math, music, gym, and environmental studies- are also complimentary, and also note my occasional lack of focus.
My math teacher delivered my favourite comment from this report card: “Valuable time is taken up with peripheral sketch work on assignment pages. Let’s work on overcoming this distraction in the second term, David!”
My parents and teachers realized later in grade four that my “peripheral sketch work” was in fact helping me to concentrate and absorb information during lessons. It was a natural, unconscious accommodation I’d developed for myself in order to acclimate to a teaching environment which didn’t suit me.
To his credit, my grade four math teacher backed off when he learned this. I continued prolifically doodling on my coursework all the way through university.
My second report card is from early April, and covers the time that I was depressed.
Tthe quality of my work, my effort, as well as my attitudes were graded on my report cards. Miraculously, none of the three seems to have changed for the worse during my depression. I even “frequently demonstrated a positive attitude toward learning”, which was a fucking miracle. The only problem area was French, but my teacher was what the French call “les incompetent”.
In the comments section my sense of humour was noted, and my homeroom teacher once again went into great detail concerning my creative and linguistic abilities.
She noted, “I am pleased to see that his stories for class depict less violence lately.” I remember how dark my stories became around the time of my depression, and how scary and confusing that was for me. I eventually became aware of the link between my emotionality and my writing and was even able to use that therapeutically. But in grade four I had no idea what was happening, and the disapproval of my teacher made things worse.
In math, French, gym, and environmental studies (ie: the shit that doesn’t matter) the comments were more critical this term. My environmental studies teacher really got off on organization, and noted the messiness of my workspace. It didn’t occur to her that perhaps it reflected the messiness of my mind. My French teacher criticized what she saw as my lack of effort in class, because the only alternative for my failings was accepting that she was bad at her job. My math teacher seemed troubled by my lack of progress, but offered no solutions. But this wasn’t his fault. For three years my teachers had skated past the fact that I didn’t understand most of the basic concepts in math. He was left to hold the bag.
The third report card, covering the period just after my depression, marks a huge change. The grades and comments are so positive that I’m skeptical of their genuineness. Are teachers encouraged to spike students’ marks a little in the final report card in order to make themselves look good? It wouldn’t surprise me.
The teachers all praise my improved focus and organizational skills. My math teacher gave me permission to use a calculator for the last few months; this is an accommodation I maintained for the duration of my public education, and probably was what enabled me to pass math. My French teacher, demonstrating a consistent lack of self-awareness, criticized my lack of effort. My environmental studies teacher offered no substantial remarks, but that’s because she almost died in May and had to take an early retirement.
My teacher’s comments about my reading and writing abilities were basically the same as they had been since the first grade, which makes me wonder whether anyone ever taught me anything or if they just provided a lot of encouragement. Which is more important for a teacher: providing new skills and information, or building confidence?
In my math class things had gone completely to hell. My grade five teacher- who would have been better suited working at a car wash- made some spectacularly bad decisions.
In my first report card he said that I had a high level of anxiety during math, and that this could be alleviated by taking risks in class and by generally improving my attitude. “Expectations have been adjusted”, he notes.
In my second report card the comments are generally positive, but there’s a whiff of antagonism from my teacher. That’s not entirely his fault though. I treated him with barely concealed contempt, I was at least as smart as he was, and he was a young teacher who was (justifiably) insecure about his abilities.
My favourite comment from my second report card: “At times [in gym he becomes] very frustrated with himself and my efforts to encourage him to participate.”
In my final report card my teacher briefly notes that I was “a pleasant student”, which I know was a bald-faced lie. Then he gets to the good stuff: I didn’t put enough effort into my work, my time management skills and organizational skills needed to be developed, and my work was rarely as neat as it should be. He said, “David is unwilling to make corrections, underline or date work on his own.”
Oh, he and I had some fun times together.
This is as good a place as any to note that from grade four until grade six I was forced to learn the recorder as part of my music class. I had fucking motor skills problems and they wanted me to play a wind instrument. It went just about as well as you can imagine.
So in 1995 the fine people of Ontario decided it was a great idea to elect a hardline conservative premier who despised healthcare and education. One of the many effects of this decision was the modification of report cards. Up until 1998, report cards were divided into two parts: an outline of the students’ grades, and a supplementary section which contained detailed, individualized comments from teachers.
In 1998 report cards were standardized, and teachers were restricted to comments that sounded like they were selected from a list of options in a computer program (which might have actually been the case).
As a result, my grade six report cards are less interesting. My grades were, for the most part, weak to average. The one exception was English, which was consistently strong.
I was exempted from French halfway through this year, because my parents had finally gotten sick of dealing with that shit. They made a persuasive argument that it was impossible for me to learn French, and an even more persuasive argument that “until he is formally exempt we will show up at the school every day during French class, remove David from the premises for that period of time, and you can’t stop us.”
To my surprise, my French marks during the first term weren’t even all that bad; I got a D+ and two C’s.
Along with my report cards from grade six are two copies of my Individualized Education Plan from this period of time. That’s a written list of accommodations they give retards.
The first I.E.P. notes only a diagnosis of anxiety and partial hearing loss. It says I’m fully integrated. The second I.E.P. is from a few months later and notes that I have Non-Verbal Learning Disorder, and that I’ve been exempted from French.
I wasn’t diagnosed with N.L.D. until the summer after grade six, so I don’t know what the hell that’s all about. I suppose it was an educated guess or an assumption, but an I.E.P. is a legally binding document. It’s hardly a place for speculation.
My areas of strength and “areas for growth” were both noted in my second I.E.P. My strengths are mostly to do with reading and writing skills. My challenges mostly concern anxiety. These comments located the problem within me, as opposed to within the learning environment.
The list of accommodations provided were impressive and intensive, but it was too little, too late. My parents, the teachers, and myriad specialists managed to stem the bleeding and get me through elementary school without a second depressive episode.
But any feelings of safety I might have had within the education system were gone. My faith in the ability of authority figures to be helpful and do good was broken. And all the accommodations in the world couldn’t change the fact that the school system was not designed for people like me.
They tried their damndest, but the real problem was the world in which I lived. Nobody had the power to fix that. All they could do was bear witness.