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(Joreen Cull/The Globe and Mail)
(Joreen Cull/The Globe and Mail)

I discovered all my school report cards Add to ...

“Chris’ work in English has been a disappointment. However, it is beginning to improve. Other marks, while less than his best, are satisfactory.”

Grade 8 with that tough taskmaster Mr. Ingall. His words bring back recollections of that time long ago. I had forgotten, but the box of old report cards brought it all back.

Dad, at 92, had recently made the move from a retirement residence to long-term care. This last stage of downsizing reduced his personal property down to a chair, some clothes and a few photos.

Many memories came back to me while sorting through all the stuff that had to go to family, charity or disposal. Among all those things, the box of report cards was a surprise.

I’m sure it was my late mother who had kept them all. I suspect all mothers do this. They hide away each report card at the end of every school year. They never tell you. They keep these reports in a secret box, probably down in the basement somewhere. Why? Had my mother kept them for me? I’ll never know, but now I had found my box in a closet full of boxes, and it proved to be something needing more study.

I didn’t know that I had been promoted to Grade 2 “on trial.” I was shocked. Not only that but I was “very young,” talkative and had questionable hygiene in regards to fingernails.

Memories began to come back of life at Parkside Junior School in Ajax, Ont., in the late 1950s. My class photo from Grade 2 reveals a homogeneous sea of little white faces and a list of English names. There was not one chubby body among them.

Life was different back then. Maybe not better, but definitely different. The playgrounds were dangerous. Kids didn’t seem to have peanut allergies, or take Ritalin, or have to deal with ball bans. We wandered everywhere, playing in the woods, in the fields, even on the railway tracks.

There were few organized sports. We “organized” – without adult supervision or interference – our own baseball games and played hockey in backyard rinks. And, speaking of rinks, it was a time before global warming took its toll.

Justice at school was swift. After I was pushed to the ground by a bully in Grade 2, we were both frogmarched to the principal’s office. My brief testimony of being pushed, backed up by a scraped knee, brought three whacks with the strap onto the offender’s hand. He never bothered me again.

The next report in Grade 3 said that I appeared to be “still improving,” though I had to work harder in spelling. By Grade 4, it was noted that I “was working hard,” but that I could “do better work in language and literature as well as spelling.” Things didn’t sound a lot better.

By Grade 5, things were looking up: “Chris readily applies himself during oral work.” I knew this talkative bit would pay off. The teacher continued, “… but written work lacks neatness and care in accuracy … he can do much better.” At least my fingernails escaped comment.

A move to Peterborough, Ont., for Grade 6 brought greater struggles. “Christopher has just barely passed,” wrote Mr. Jackson. All but one mark was below the class average. Those kids in Peterborough were smart.

I remember more clearly my later school days when I was doing well: first class honours, Ontario scholar, undergraduate and graduate university degrees. But how did I ever get there from such early struggle?

I decided a scientific approach was needed. I plotted my spelling/English marks, arithmetic/math results and overall average from Grades 1 through 13.

The overall average was flatlined around class average at best all the way to Grade 10 or so. My arithmetic and later math marks showed some brief promise in Grades 4 and 8, but didn’t take off in a sustained way until Grade 10.

What happened? A sudden bang on the head connected a loose processor in my brain?

Around age 13, I became hooked on the night sky. My parents bought me my first telescope, a wobbly department store item boasting ridiculous and unusable high magnifications. I didn’t care. I could see the Orion Nebula and lots of other neat stuff.

I began building my own telescopes, grinding and polishing mirrors, always moving on to a bigger one. Maybe this focused and motivated me? Or maybe it was my dad, the engineer, who always discussed with me how mechanical things worked? Perhaps it was the influence of my mom, who talked about politics, world affairs and geography with me?

Maybe report cards aren’t as blunt these days. I know those early warnings of struggling brought on many hours of remedial spelling and arithmetic with my parents. Maybe there was no silver bullet or magic trigger, but just a combination that finally got me interested in what teachers were trying so hard to teach me.

I went on to earn a BSc in physics and an MSc in astronomy and astrophysics from the University of Toronto. I started my career in astronomy and now consult for computer software companies.

Anyway, I’m finished with the box of report cards. Thank you, Mrs. Hoag in Grade 2, Mr. Jackson in Grade 6 and Miss Keller in Grade 9. Thank you all. I did in the end try harder and applied myself. Sorry it took so long and many of you didn’t see the result. Thanks for your patience and prodding.

I’ve now rediscovered what all students know: Report cards are highly flammable. They make great fire starters for the wood stove when you’re older, if your mom kept them for you.

Chris Smith lives in Oakville, Ont.

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